More than Mere Lunacy

When James Wenneker von Brunn murdered
Stephen T. Johns at the Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this month,
history was less made than revealed. Officer Johns, a 39-year-old
African-American family man, was an easygoing guard, affectionately
known to colleagues as "Big John.'' That his last act was to open the
door for a member of the public defines his goodness. That von Brunn,
an 88-year-old white supremacist and anti-Semite, simply opened fire on
the man holding the door defines his malevolence. But more is at work
here than an act of lunacy.

Johns was not murdered by coarsened civic discourse, nor by broad
currents of racial hatred, nor, for that matter, by inflammatory
rhetoric of certain talk-show hosts. Johns was murdered by von Brunn,
who should now be swiftly brought to justice. But it is impossible, and
would be irresponsible, to ignore the implications of this event: a set
of extravagant hatreds combined with a mysticism of the weapon, laying
bare multiple connections. A Jew hater, von Brunn could have assaulted
a synagogue. A racist, he could have targeted an African-American
postal worker. A nihilist, he might have attacked another tourist site
in Washington; the guard randomly confronting him might have been white
- but what von Brunn in fact did defines its own meaning.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum affirms that even the darkest human
impulses must be reckoned with. The institution itself, including the
gravity of architecture that evokes a death factory, epitomizes
cultural criticism, imposing on everything around it - from Mall
edifices that were partly built by slaves, to the Bureau of Engraving's
sanctification of money, to sculpted glorifications of various wars -
an unsought verdict of history. Von Brunn attacked such reckoning
itself. A denier, he attacked memory.

all of Hitler's neo-paganism, the Holocaust did not spontaneously
spring up out of the Teutonic forest. The District of Columbia may have
been carved out of the heart of tidewater slave-holding, but that crime
had roots beyond the American South. Indeed, what von Brunn's act
dramatizes is that race hatred in Western culture is elliptical, and
has two foci: anti-Semitism and white supremacy. In ways that are
rarely understood, the former generated the latter, which then curled
back as anti-Jewish genocide. Aggression of one group toward others is
built into the human condition, but we are speaking of something more
deadly than that - an effervescent lethality that is peculiar to the
culture that comes from Europe.

we call "racism'' can be traced to the 15th-century Iberian idea of
"blood impurity,'' a biological fault that set Jews apart from
Christians. Jewish unworthiness was no longer in their religion, but in
their physical makeup - an inherited inferiority. That idea combined at
about the same time (1492 a marker) with assumptions of innate European
superiority over the "savages'' encountered in first-wave colonialism.
The new European imperialism (unlike, say, the imperialism of ancient
Rome) depended on the ideology of absolute ranking by race.

pseudo-scientific idea that "inferior races,'' like inferior species,
were properly doomed by laws of nature (survival of the fittest)
arrived in time to justify wanton genocide, from Congo to Colorado.
Unkilled natives were enslaved. As the scholar Sven Lindquist observed,
Hitler's innovation was to apply within Europe, against Jews, the
method that conquistadors and colonists had long used against
aboriginals on four continents. One thing alone empowered Europeans to
wreak such havoc wherever they went, and that was the gun - enabling
murder from afar. The gun, in all its forms, was the epochal tool of
white male supremacy, which is why it continues to have irrational
appeal. As much as the jack-booted hate Jews and blacks, that much they
love their guns.

If we
humans were condemned to such homicidal impulses by the mere fact of
our human condition, then the denial of history would be tolerable,
moral amnesia inevitable. But anti-Semitism and racism come from
particular times and places, choices and consequences - from culture
created by humans. Therefore such culture can be changed by humans -
but only if we reckon with its past. It was to history, memory, and the
possibility of a better future that Officer Stephen Johns opened the
door. May he rest in peace.

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