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Bigotry's Bullets and the Holocaust Museum Shooting

By June 10, 2009

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David Neumann, 83, lights a candle inside the Hall of Remembrance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in February. The museum was the site of a shooting today. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was dedicated on a bleak, rainy day 16 years ago (on April 22, 1993). "To forget would mean to kill the victims a second time," said Elie Wiesel, whose mother and father were among the murdered of Auschwitz, and who himself smelled the death camp's smoke from its crematoriums. "We could not prevent their first death; we must not allow them to be killed again."

The museum is sacred, or at least consecrated ground, as even the nearby Washington Monument--a mere obelisk of projective pride and architecture--could never be. It is where commemoration, responsibility, reckoning and understanding must meet if Wiesel's words are to mean anything. It is the sort of place, rare in the United States, where understanding Israel--viscerally and without qualifiers--is possible even for those who know little or nothing about the Middle East. It is the sort of place that makes violating the memory of the Holocaust the particularly injurious offense that it is (and the crime that it's been declared in several European countries).

Just before 1 p.m. today, during the hour when the capital's workers ritualistically visit museums as they would personal retreats, a gunman with a shotgun murdered a security guard before another guard shot and disabled him.

From the Post:

D.C. Fire Department spokesman Alan Etter said there was no immediate information on the shooter. He said two men were transported to a hospital with "serious" gunshot wounds. One witness, Dave Unruh, of Wichita, Kan., said he was waiting to enter the museum when he heard one gunshot, then a sequence of four or five gunshots. He said he then heard someone scream, "Hit the floor!." He and his wife, Karen, and their two teenage grandchildren hit the floor and were subsequently herded out of the building by authorities.
By 2 p.m., MSNBC was reporting that the shooter "was reportedly a man, born in 1920, who had possible connections to hate groups or anti-government groups." It's difficult to imagine an 89-year-old man wielding a shotgun so effectively as to mow down three people. Then again, hate can be an astounding motivational force for ill. How relevant is it, anyway, if the man is 89 or 19? It's the crime that matters. The perpetrator's identity immediately begins to convey a hint of perverse celebrity perpetrators don't deserve, though in this case identity matters all too much. (The Post subsequently reports that "A law enforcement source identified the gunman as James W. von Brunn, who is known to authorities as a white supremacist.")

I have to confess what I assume many people are privately confessing to themselves all over the globe, crass as this sort of confession cannot avoid to be: If MSNBC's reporting proves correct, thank heavens the shooter isn't an Arab or a Muslim. In the surfeit of bigotries that drive so much of the passions and the debates, and too much of the policies, heaped all over the Middle East, a rampaging would-be murderer at a Holocaust museum is the last thing the Arab or Muslim world needs.

The default setting of western mentalities (and American mentalities in particular) is immediately to blame Arabs or Muslims when terrorist acts take place, and the terrorist's identity is not yet certain. It's one of those bigoted reflexes that no amount of evidence, from Timothy McVeigh to whoever today's shooter turns out to be, seems capable of dulling.

It's also a reminder of how far the West--for all its sobering memorials and pledges to be more enlightened than the West's bleak past--has to go to live up to its ideals. It's also why today's shooting is not so much an aberration as the continuation of a compulsion for hate with a long and unresolved history in the West, and one that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle East.

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June 10, 2009 at 3:44 pm
(1) Justin Quinn says:

While I agree with you, I can’t share your relief — at least not completely.

Last week, I wrote a piece of content defending conservatives against the charge of racism, but I have a feeling that because Von Brunn was a racist bigot, people are going to make the false connection that he’s somehow a political conservative. From what I’ve read on his site, he’s clearly a kook, which automatically makes his politics inconsequential (IMHO).

June 10, 2009 at 4:23 pm
(2) Uh says:

Von Brunn IS a political conservative. Another liberal-hating racist bigot, indeed.

“Bit by bit Liberalism ascended. Bit by bit the Constitution was re-interpreted. Bit by bit government institutions and Congressmen fell into JEW hands ó then U.S. diplomacy, businesses, resources and manpower came under JEW control.”


June 10, 2009 at 10:51 pm
(3) D says:

I believe the shooter’s identity is always important, not to bestow some kind of celebrity status onto the shooter, but to try to figure out the motivations. Was the shooter someone whose wife had an affair with the guard, or a white supremacist? The crime is viewed very differently depending on the shooter’s identity and motivations.

I agree that too often, Americans associate the word “terrorist” with “Arab” or “Muslim.” I remember when the Oklahoma City bombing happened, investigators asked witnesses if they saw any “foreigners” leaving the scene.

June 11, 2009 at 4:06 am
(4) Kathy says:

Hi, Pierre — I cherish my visit to the Holocaust Museum when I was last in DC. I am appalled not only at what happened Wednesday, but that a convicted felon — who used a gun in the crime for which he spent time in prison — was somehow able to get another gun.

I’m taking the liberty of pasting the comment that I just wrote on Justin’s post, since its theme is present in your comment thread:


Hi, Justin — I agree that most Americans reject acts like that of von Brunn, and I agree wholeheartedly with Pierre.

Glenn Beck can try to change the language in the US all he wants to, but he’s pushing spaghetti uphill. “The right” has been used to describe “nationalists” since long before I was born. Even the Washington Times (!) is calling this act “right wing extremism”: http://washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jun/11/right-wing-extremists-seen-presenting-threat/

It is true that there is no universally agreed upon definition for “right wing extremism” but I believe that Beck is alone in trying to paint “leftist” on such groups. From a scholarly journal article:

“Some qualities and interests often associated with right-wing parties include nationalism, racism, xenophobia, anti-democracy, and a strong state. Falter and Schuman define ten features of right-wing extremist thinking: extreme nationalism, anti-communism, ethnocentrism, anti-parliamentarism, anti-
pluralism, militarism, law-and-order thinking, a demand for a strong leader… ”


Also, see The Revival of Right-wing Extremism in the Nineties by Peter H Merkl, Leonard Weinberg (you can Google it).

And here’s a modern (2007) example from Greece (the U.S. certainly does not have a monopoly on extreme nationalism): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/sep/13/thefarright

Oh, one more point about the Nazi party: scholars consistently pin it as “right” (not left). Here’s Wikipedia, but the source is two scholarly books (Harvard and Routledge).

(I didn’t make those links clickable in the hopes of subverting the spam filter!)

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