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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