Is the Web to Blame?

James von Brunn was charged Thursday for the Holocaust Museum shooting, and new reports suggest his anti-Semitism was tied to theories about Obama that flourish on the Web. Why von Brunn’s network of online extremists are increasingly dangerous, and becoming violent.

Among other things, alleged Holocaust Museum killer James von Brunn is a “birther”—someone who subscribes to one of the many elaborate conspiracy theories regarding how Barack Obama is constitutionally ineligible to be president, because supposedly he isn’t a natural-born American citizen. Today police found a note in von Brunn’s car, reading in part, “The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews.”

Brunn’s copious writings reveal him to be a straightforwardly paranoid racist and anti-Semite: in short, a representative from the lunatic fringe of American politics who it’s tempting to dismiss as a completely aberrant and marginal figure.

In the America of 2009, the lunatic fringe is becoming an increasingly viral movement—and it’s creeping toward the edges of what’s still considered the political mainstream.

A closer look, however, reveals that in the America of 2009, the lunatic fringe is becoming an increasingly viral movement—and it’s creeping toward the edges of what’s still considered the political mainstream.

The host for this political virus is the Internet. Like many journalists, I get lots of emails imploring me to visit this or that Web site, which reveals the terrible truth about this or that government conspiracy that’s being covered up by the mainstream media.

Lately most of these emails have been from birthers. A good number of my correspondents also subscribe to other popular conspiracy theories: They think Obama is secretly a Muslim, or that “the Jews” are controlling him (some especially creative thinkers hold both of these views simultaneously).

Most of these people are no doubt harmless cranks. Still, the Web sites they recommend are veritable fever swamps of right-wing paranoia, soaked in extremist rhetoric that denounces Obama as a “traitor” and “usurper in chief.”

Many are full of comments seething with rage and frustration at the failure of their fellow Americans to resist what’s characterized as an illegitimate dictatorship run by the radical Muslim equivalent of a Manchurian candidate. There are dark hints regarding violent government suppression of dissent, and the proud American tradition of armed resistance to tyranny.

All of this is characteristic of how technologies like the Internet and email are ideal incubators for certain forms of particularly unhinged political extremism, as paranoiacs leap from one conspiracy to the next, and reinforce each other’s views that “the truth” is being hidden by shadowy powers that manipulate and control everything.

Again, it’s tempting to dismiss such people as utterly marginal, even when, as in von Brunn’s case, they move from violent rhetoric to what some of them consider necessary and therefore legitimate violence.

Yet if we consider how paranoid Internet fantasies about Obama’s birth and religious affiliation are getting mainstreamed, the situation becomes more disturbing.

Extremely popular mainstream right-wing blogs like Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs, which has hosted Web interviews with conservative luminaries such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, have given uncritical support to the absurd notion that Obama’s birth certificate was forged, and that a vast conspiracy is hiding this amazing fact from the American people.

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Former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who was the party’s standard bearer in the 2004 Senate race that first brought Obama to national office, filed a suit challenging Obama’s right to become president, and predicted that civil war will break out if this “usurper” and “radical communist” isn’t stopped. (Keyes explicitly refuses to recognize the validity of Obama’s presidency.)

Even impeccably mainstream Republican figures such as former Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney and current Alabama Senator Richard Shelby have gotten into the act. Gaffney has written editorials questioning Obama’s birth certificate, and claiming that “there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but may still be one himself.”

Meanwhile, Shelby told a constituent worried about Obama’s constitutional right to be president that, “Well his father was Kenyan and they said [Obama] was born in Hawaii, but I haven’t seen any birth certificate. You have to be born in America to be president.” (A spokesman for Shelby later claimed Shelby wasn’t meaning to question Obama’s place of birth.)

These sorts of comments help explain the concerns of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who shortly after the Holocaust Museum murder, made on-air comments about how the emails he’s been receiving lately have become “more and more frightening.”

“There are people now who are way out there on a limb. And they are out there,” Smith noted. “I mean, out there in a scary place... I could read a hundred of them like this...I mean from today. People who are so amped up and so angry for reasons that are absolutely wrong, ridiculous, preposterous."

Smith went on to read a typically unhinged rant from a birther, which he described as “a representative sample of the things we get here.”

We don’t know yet if incidents like the museum shooting will remain isolated events, or if they’re the beginnings of a new wave of political violence, birthed in part by the cyberspace version of what, in a famous essay 45 years ago, Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.”

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.