As congressional lawmakers return to their home districts for August recess, they could find a creature from Washington's silly season waiting for them: the "birthers."
That's the nickname given to the odd activists who refuse to believe that President Barack Obama qualifies as a "natural-born citizen."
The "birther" nickname is half-adapted from the 9/11 "truthers" who hounded the previous administration, blaming shadowy homegrown conspiracies for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
I have a different nickname for both groups: sore losers.
Obama's victory, like that of his predecessor, was too unexpected for some people to wrap their minds around, but we always have our imaginations - which in some cases have no limits.
Respect for facts did not help U.S. Rep. Mike Castle when the Delaware Republican's recent town hall meeting was disrupted by a woman who demanded to know why Congress was "ignoring" questions about Obama's birth certificate.
They're ignoring the "questions" because the questions have been put to rest in most stable people's minds. For example, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of Hawaii's State Department of Health, has reiterated her earlier declaration that she has seen the "original vital records" of Obama's Hawaii birth with her own eyes, contrary to the birthers' charges of a phony document. Hawaiian newspapers also have printed photos of the 1961 announcement of Obama's birth. If there's a cover-up, this one has been running for decades.
But when Castle countered that Obama is, in fact, "a citizen of the United States," the crowd didn't like that. Some erupted in boos. The woman took control and led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Within days, the video went viral, helped along by TV news programs, and threw a chill down the spines of congressmen preparing to face other groups back in their own districts.
Birther leader Orly Taitz, a California attorney and dentist, has posted the hope on her blog that "each and every decent American comes to town hall meetings with a video camera and demands action." If so, they'll probably do Democrats a big favor. Disrupters of meetings in Democratic districts are likely to be hooted down or thrown out. Congressional Republicans had better be prepared to offer more satisfying answers than Castle gave.
But what? The best they can do is try to change the subject to some of the many more urgent issues facing Americans, like two wars, the economy and the big debate on restructuring health care. The Obama birth conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied by something so humble as mere facts.
What's with these suspicious minds? Why is there such an insistence, even after his birth certificate is produced, to have Obama produce even more?
I am hardly alone in my impression that at least some of the "birther" movement is a new hood under which racism can hide its ugly face. But, looking at history, I also detect a broader illness: xenophobia, a distrust of people who come from somebody else's crowd.
That's why I call them sore losers. Unable to challenge his vote, they challenge his legitimacy. The birther challenges to Obama remind me of the bad old days of Jim Crow segregation in the South, with "literacy tests" (Sample question: How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?) and other outlandish challenges to black voter eligibility.
Skepticism is healthy, but I guess I'm old-fashioned in my nagging respect for the weight of evidence over speculation.
It is human nature, regardless of one's color, to dream up suspicions that might provide plausible, if not provable, explanations for traumatic events. Some, such as African Americans, can point to real conspiracies that turned out to be true, like the infamous Tuskegee Experiment that treated black men like guinea pigs for syphilis research. As the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that somebody is not out to get you.
But the best response to the endless questions raised by the sore-loser movement is to put the burden of proof back on them. Obama's disbelievers don't really try to win the argument. They only want to arouse suspicion.
Clarence Page writes for Tribune Media Services. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.