Among the myriad of disturbing qualities of James Von Brunn, the 88-year-old man who shot and killed a security officer inside the Holocaust Museum on Wednesday, is his apparent belief that Barack Obama is not a citizen of the United States and therefore has no right to the presidency.
The reason it sticks out is that, even among Von Brunn's other characteristics -- including heavy streaks of anti-Semitism, disdain for the federal government, and threads of white supremacy -- being a "birther" has a modicum of political credibility.
Certainly, the vast majority of people who are skeptical of Obama's birth in the state of Hawaii tend to be harmless conspiracy theorists. And there has been no suggestion that Von Brunn's distrust of the president's citizenship solely drove him to this violent act.
"In addition to being a birther," said Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, "he also believed that Hitler didn't kill enough Jews. He had a history of anti-Semitic, hateful views."
Indeed a "birther" mindset is more a symptom of extremism than a cause.
That said, the extent to which the birther ethos has been driven into the political narrative by legitimate figures, and subsequently picked up by extremist elements, is noteworthy. In an obvious reference to questions about Obama's birthplace, Rep. Bill Posey, R-FL, has introduced a bill in the House requiring presidential candidates to file a copy of their birth certificates. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-V.A, has joined him as a co-sponsor of that measure.
Several weeks ago, conservative reporter Lester Kinsolving, asked Robert Gibbs why the president would not "respond to the petition to requests of 400,000 American citizens by releasing a certified copy of his long-form birth certificate listing hospital?"
Outside political circles, but still within the national spotlight, the view is much more widely articulated. As late as two weeks ago, for instance, Fox News was running a headline on its website, asking: "Should Obama Release Birth Certificate? Or Is This Old News?" On Wednesday morning, moreover, talk show host Rush Limbaugh sardonically compared President Obama to God, noting that, "God does not have a birth certificate either."
Remarks like these aren't inherently violent. They can be picked up, however, by individuals who are.
"I think it is perfectly obvious that the birther movement has gained a large following on the radical right," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It may have emerged form the right wing of the Republican Party. But the reality is that it has been adopted by the most noxious elements out there and certainly John Von Brunn represents that element."
Neither Posey nor Goodlatte's office returned request for comment.
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