From its inception, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has regarded itself — and been regarded by others — as a high priority target, and for good reason. Though not a Jewish institution, but a government institution, it is one of the most visible institutions that reflect the prominence of American Jewry — its creators — and the most central American institution dealing with the Holocaust.
For the past 15 years, the museum has spent significant resources on security and held itself to the highest standards. Its security staff is very professional, very well trained and armed. Such professionalism and training showed itself today in the swiftness of their response. Lives were saved. There may have been as many as 2,000 people in the museum when the gunman entered. We deeply mourn the death of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, a six-year veteran of the museum’s security staff, and salute his colleagues for their immediate and effective response.
The alleged shooter, an 88-year-old white supremacist — let us not give him the dignity of a name — reminds us that danger lurks in many places and that hatred takes many forms. It will be clear over the next several days that he hated Jews, but not only Jews. Racists seem to be unable to confine their hatred to only one group, and this often generates solidarity among the subjects of their hatred, for the safety of one group is inextricably lined to the safety of another and to the effectiveness of law enforcement groups and the rule of law. He proclaimed his hatred on the Web. His heinous act is the loudest proclamation of that hatred.
We should genuinely fear a copycat killer, and other institutions must take appropriate precautions. A lone gunman who is willing to risk his own death can seldom be stopped. Homegrown terrorists are dangerous, as we saw in a Kansas church on the Sunday before last. Venom is also dangerous.
The attack also reminds us of the sheer power of the events now known as the Holocaust; the power to plead for dignity and decency, for tolerance and pluralism, and for an effective response to other genocide and to the condemnation of antisemitism, past and present.
The killer may have been on Holocaust overload.
Pope Benedict recently visited Yad Vashem and forcibly condemned Holocaust denial and antisemitism. And while most Jews regarded his words somewhat disappointedly — they were overly intellectual, somewhat cold and devoid of autobiographic detail, especially when contrasted with his predecessor Pope John Paul II — such subtlety was likely lost on the killer.
President Barack Obama may also have been on his mind. An African-American man, who is clearly brilliant and articulate, accepted by the American people as their president may have been too much for a white supremacist to handle. It shatters his perception of the world, the certainty of his own twisted vision.
The president’s forceful condemnation of Holocaust denial in Cairo was unambiguous and authoritative. So welcome to many of us, it may have been raw meat for such a man of hate. And the president’s visit to Buchenwald in the presence of the president of Germany and the chancellor of Germany, with Elie Wiesel, the most prominent survivor of Buchenwald, as their guide, was a direct refutation of his worldview. New leaders had arisen in Germany — they do not deny the past, they condemn it. The skeleton-like figure who once slept in the barracks of Birkenau had become a world spokesman for human dignity and for embracing the diversity of God’s creations. This too must shatter the worldview of a man filled with hatred.
The president’s visit was America at its best. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is also America at its best — open, diverse, pluralistic, fighting for human dignity and decency, confronting the hatreds that resulted in the Holocaust, the hatreds that would invite its repetition.
Those who visit the museum in the aftermath of this horrendous attack should view their visit as an act of defiance, denying white supremacists and other haters their victory. The death of officer Stephen Tyrone Johns should renew our determination to advance the causes of the museum, for which he gave his life.
Michael Berenbaum was project director of the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.