Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Holocaust Museum Shooting: What Happened, And What Happened After

I was at the computer with CNN buzzing behind me a week and a half ago when the news broke that someone had walked into the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and opened fire. The news said that a security guard was dead and two others were hurt but there were no other details. A dear friend of mine works at the museum and I immediately emailed her but heard nothing back. So I waited. For what felt like a very long time I was not sure whether or not my friend was still alive.

Finally she emailed me from her blackberry that she had been evacuated along with her coworkers to a nearby location and was safe.

Thank God.

Once I learned she was okay I took a break from the news, but not before learning that an 88-year old white supremacist named James von Bruun was the gunman and the dead guard was Stephen T. Johns, a six-year veteran of the museum and an African American. I logged on to Racialicious where an open thread on the tragedy had started. I didn’t have much to add… I was too shaken up to say anything smart but I was comforted to know that the community was talking about this and sharing information. However, that feeling dissipated when I checked back the following day and saw the disturbing turn the thread had taken into a discussion about “black anti-Semitism.” A white Supremacist walks into the US Holocaust Museum and opens fire, killing an African American guard and the best we can do…on Racialicious yet… is bullshit about “black anti-Semitism”?

For what its worth, this grotesque turn had its origins (as far as I can tell) in a larger, better point: that anti-Jewish sentiments are pervasive and do not “live” only on the Right, or exclusively in the minds of nutjobs like von Bruun, but are also expressed on the Left. This is the same argument I have often made myself about Orientalism, that it is ubiquitous to the point of invisibility, and on its own, this is a valuable insight. But clothed in sloppy tangents about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and culminating in one poster’s assertion that “Blacks do harbor anti-Semitic views at greater rates than others”, not so much. Yes, anti-Semitism is everywhere–just like its close cousin Orientalism–no argument from me at all. Minus the racism, that is an important point. But why make it at the expense of black people, especially when a black man was just murdered protecting Jews from harm?

The fact is, a white supremacist whose ideology makes no distinction whatsoever between the black man he killed, the Jews he attempted to terrorize or the Arabs and Muslims who were initially blamed for the violence, perpetrated this horrific crime. But the possibility of unpacking the shared legacy of the marginalized people implicated in Johns’ terrible murder evaporated almost immediately as the smoke cleared. In other words, instead of using this tragedy to explore the ways the different marginalized populations implicated in the tragedy (Jews, obviously; Blacks; Arabs and Muslims, who were assumed to be the perpetrators—again) had in common, the discussion shifted quickly to whose narrative is the dominant one. Who gets to “own” this tragedy? Jews, against whom this horrific violence was intended or African Americans, who suffered an actual loss? What is the balance between symbolic and tangible violence? And must there be a hierarchy of suffering imposed and a singular narrative of oppression drawn?

The ironic backdrop for these questions is that von Bruun’s lethal assault on the Holocaust museum coincided, and some have speculated was incited by, the planned performance of a play by Janet Langhart Cohen, titled Anne and Emmett, which dramatizes a conversation between Anne Frank, who died of Typhus in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 and Emmett Till, who was murdered by a racist mob in Mississippi ten years later. Langhart Cohen, a black woman, is married to the former Secretary of State (under Bill Clinton) William Cohen, who is Jewish. And the play, featuring young people—Frank was 15 and Till was 14—whose lives were ended through horrific racist violence, was to be performed at the Holocaust Museum to honor the eightieth anniversary of Frank’s birth. The imagined conversation between Till and Frank, according to Langhart Cohen, is haunted by the possibility they will both be forgotten—a final death. According to a Washington Post article by Courtland Milloy, titled “Dramatic Reminder of Our Duty to Remember”, Langhart Cohen was inspired to write her play when a luncheon companion—who is Jewish—scolded her for discussing “American Apartheid.” Milloy writes,

“’Oh, Janet, you don't want to go discussing that," Langhart Cohen recalled the woman saying. "You live in a penthouse. You're married to the secretary of defense. Why do you want to talk about those days?’” Recounting these events, her husband, William said, "Janet came home after the luncheon and said to me, 'It hurts so much to be told that remembering my history is unbecoming… Then she said, 'I wonder what Anne Frank would have said to Emmett Till?' And I said, 'Go write it.' And she did -- using two thumbs and a BlackBerry." In the complex history of black and Jewish relations -- long characterized by a mix of empathy and mutual respect, hostility and suspicion, and, of late, wearied indifference -- the play seeks to rekindle a memory of a common struggle for freedom and justice.”

However, despite Langhart Cohen’s best hopes, her play—and its message—went unheard, first because of James von Bruun’s hate-fueled shooting spree, which ended Stephen Johns life, and second by the failure of the discourse to account for the linkages between marginalized peoples, in favor of the issues that keep us separate. In Anne and Emmett, Langhart Cohen writes,

Anne: We're all here together in the darkness, yet alone at the same time until we're pulled into the light, until we're remembered.

Emmett: Remembered? By whom?


  1. Great post, Joseph! Really well written. I didn't know the conversation on Racialicious went that far. It just seems counter-productive me that we have to focus on things that separate us. I agree that the conversation about "black anti-semitism" was very inappropriate on that thread.

    It would be wonderful to see this piece on Racialicious.

  2. Thanks Jehanzeb. It was harder to write than i wanted it to be because this violence hit so close to home.