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June 12th, 2009
05:52 PM ET

'How do we reconcile this?'

Security officer Stephen Johns reportedly opened the door for the man police say was his killer.

Security officer Stephen Johns reportedly opened the door for the man police say was his killer.
James W. von Brunn is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. His online biography says he served in World War II.

James W. von Brunn is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. His online biography says he served in World War II.

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

If anything positive can come from the tragic shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, it is to shine a light on the creatures who occupy a dark corner of American discourse.

I’ll resist a temptation to compare them with a particular species of insect, but the dictionary on my desk uses the phrase “destructive, annoying or injurious to health” to describe their ilk.

These are people whose lives are consumed by hate for “the other.” They may use a bullhorn in the public square, their free speech rights often protected by police, or the keyboard of a computer at home, sometimes hiding behind a pseudonym.

In the case of Wednesday’s tragedy in the nation’s capital, the alleged shooter – based on the venom on his website – held Jews and blacks in particular contempt. The unfortunate irony is that the security guard killed protecting visitors to a museum recalling the greatest horror inflicted upon the Jewish people was African-American.

Just as the exterminator says that if you turn on the light and see one scurry for the darkness there are many, many more you don’t see, for every James W. von Brunn that makes headlines, there are many, many more not in the public eye.

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that more than 900 organized hate groups exist in this country (and provides a map identifying their locations).

Leonard Zeskind, whom I first encountered 25 years ago and is one of the most respected researchers of the hate groups, told Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room” that some 30,000 Americans are “hard core” members and another 250,000 could be classified as supporters.

Zeskind, who is not given to hyperbole, has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his more than three decades tracking hate groups and is author of the recently-published book “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.”

“The most important thing is for us not to dismiss the problem of the white nationalist movements in between shootings,” Zeskind told Blitzer. “We should not dismiss these things when they’re not killing. It seems to me that one of the few times we talk about this is when the killings are going on. We should pay attention to it and people should be educated about it.”

More recently than Jews and blacks, Arabs and Muslims in this country have come in for attention from the hate-mongers.

A few hours after the shooting I received an e-mail from my friend Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights attorney and creator of www.themuslimguy.com.

Iftikhar recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City there were suggestions on talk radio that the blast had to be the work of Arab or Muslim terrorists.

It wasn’t (despite what conspiracy theorists continue to insist) and neither was the Holocaust museum shooting, despite what some people might have wondered when they heard early reports about an attack on a Jewish target.

Iftikhar suggested on his Facebook page that “there should now be commissioned a bronze statue of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns to sit adjacent to The Holocaust Museum within our city to commemorate the tragedy of today.”

A less generous sampling of opinion can be found at this popular forum for white nationalists.

“I hope it's a Muslim. I hope it's a Muslim. The last thing we need is some idiot white going out and wreaking havoc,” someone using the handle “Swiss Cheese” (perhaps a reference to holes in this person’s thinking), listed as being from Indiana, posted at 1.34 p.m.

Six minutes later, VEB1958 asked, “Have we heard a description yet? Good lord I hope its not a damn white that did that crap...ugh.”

“Pure Noble Bloodline” echoed, “The more I see this on the news the more I hope it is a muslim and not a WN that they will label as a crazed Nazi.”

The tone changed slightly once the alleged shooter was identified as von Brunn, an 88-year-old white male with a long history in the white nationalist movement.

“Well, obviously these kind of actions never do us any good and only play into the hands of our opponents. I'm not quite sure what this man thought he was going to accomplish by spraying the museum with bullets, certainly he should have known that this would be splashed all over the news,” offered “Volkish.”

“Fascist Next Door” was worried. “This isn't good for our cause. This is bound to grow arms and legs for sure...”

Which brings us to Janet Langhart.

Langhart, who is African-American raised Baptist, is married to former Defense Secretary and Senator from Maine William Cohen, who is white and the offspring of an inter-faith (Protestant and Jewish) marriage.

She has been a television journalist, an author (“My Life in Two Americas: From Rage to Reason” and “Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Romance”), founder of Langhart Communications and most recently – and notably – the playwright of “Anne and Emmett,” an imaginary conversation between Holocaust victim Anne Frank, who died at age 15 in a Nazi concentration camp, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago lynched in 1955 in Mississippi.

Cohen had arrived at the Holocaust museum moments before the shooting and heard the gunshots and Langhart was en route, to oversee a rehearsal of the play, which was to have been performed that night at the museum.

Speaking emotionally to Blitzer, with her husband at her side, Langhart noted that in Europe, several nations have made Holocaust denial a crime.

“Yet here in America – and I love this country and I love our freedom . . . as a journalist, the First Amendment is important to me . . . But what do we do about people like this who spread that kind of hate. Because it all begins with a word, then it’s a gun and then it’s somebody dead. What do we do?. . . How do we reconcile this?” Langhart asked.

A very good question. Anyone have an answer?

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. GF, Los Angeles

    @ Puggles I personally can't tell if a person is a Jew unless they tell me. I don't see any difference physically between a Jew and someone who is white vs. seeing an Asian, etc.

    I agree with Mike, if the guard was white he would've been shot anyway for being a traitor to his race.

    June 12, 2009 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Tim Gibson

    The dark corners of hate and hate speech are often not so dark, one case in point which evolved most recently is Obama's defense of DOMA. Take the time to read the brief there, it is the most vile form of political hate speech I have ever read. Using all the hate speech of all the groups who have fought to deny equal civil rights to all people and on a legal level within our court system as endorsed by our elected leader. What does that say about our nation and how does it make our elected leaders and their parties any different from other nations in that respect, or even different from any other hate group.

    For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be an American.

    June 12, 2009 at 4:29 pm |
  3. Lampe

    Mari: I have read a few of your comments, and it seems to me from what you say, you have a deep seated hatred, for anyone who doesn't believe like you. That is what makes this Country of ours so GREATis that different people are allowed to have different beliefs. You keepmaking remarks, like it is only the Conservatives that make nasty-hate-filled remarks. Well is this the very first time you have paid attention to politics? Because Dems and Repubs have been doing this for years and years. It happened when Carter was in Office, it happened when Bush 41 was in office, and it happened when Clinton was in offfice, and Lord knows it happened with GWB. So why then should Obama be treated any different. would I like this all to STOP? Yes ! But, untill everyone and that includes all of us stop ourselves, how can we ever hope to STOP anyone else?

    June 12, 2009 at 4:01 pm |
  4. Mike in NYC

    @Puggles:

    If the security guard had been White, Von Brunn would certainly have killed him. He would have regarded him as a traitor to his race.

    White Nationalists may not care for non-Whites, but they hold White Republicans and self-described "conservatives" in the deepest contempt.

    BTW, google "African American museum". There are plenty.

    June 12, 2009 at 3:08 pm |
  5. JC- Los Angeles

    While the tragic murder at the Holocaust museum was another painful example of criminal activity and demented citizens, the time has come for our nation to put an end to hatred before crimes occur.

    It's stunning to see the mainstream media give Reverend Wright a free pass when he continually dispenses hatred towards Jews and America.

    If he's an anti-semite and a murder has recently taken place at the Holocaust museum, shouldn't said statements be of immediate concern?

    How a President of the United States tolerated a bigot for twenty years is anyones guess.

    June 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm |
  6. GF, Los Angeles

    Let's admit it, we all harbor some sort of hate against people whether it be another race or our own. The only difference is the degree of hate and how it's shown.

    Since the influx of illegal Latinos in LA and seeing the effects it's had – signs at major chain pharmacy's in Spanish, billboard ads in Spanish, gym equipment in a major chain with instructions in Spanish, gym teachers instructing in Spanish, job ads requesting the person be able to speak Spanish – all it has done is create resentment in me. I feel like I'm living in Mexico and not America. I understand how white people feel like they're being pushed out (I'm not white) when they see and experience these things like I do. These hate groups are the extremes of this frustration and they have every right to voice their opinion no matter how hateful it is. I don't agree with it but we are in America.

    June 12, 2009 at 2:12 pm |
  7. Nick B

    I don't think that she was suggesting the prohibition of Holocaust denial, but she does have a point. Ideas are the seeds of all actions, and since we are allowed to have any ideas we want in this country, many people are misled with terrible consequences.
    If you want to talk about something idiotic, let's talk about Holocaust denial. Modifying history to make mass killing seem less ethnocentric? Are we really to believe that Holocaust deniers are organized and passionate just because they are trying to set the record straight? They are modifying ideas to foster actions toward a political end. The actions are often violent, and since the ideas don't seem to have much use otherwise, there is no real reason to allow them other than our founding principles. I understand and support our right to believe whatever we want, but if these beliefs are being used largely to cause violence, then we need to evaluate how important they are.

    June 12, 2009 at 1:45 pm |
  8. DEE

    How many people jumped to the conclusion that the OK City bombing was the work of Islamic Extremist. How stupid did you feel when you found out it was an American who did the terrible act. Homegrown extremist are no different from international ones. They lay in wait to hurt innocent civilians no matter wht their race or religion correct? So why don't we shut them down and ship em to Gitmo where they belong. Waterboarding anyone? We need to find out what they are planning, correct? Someone please explain the difference in domestic terrorist and foreign ones. And which one is worst?

    June 12, 2009 at 1:43 pm |
  9. Charlie Douglas Euless, Texas

    How totally sad about this guy and how sad must it be for his relatives. At 88 years of age, you should be enjoying your family, your grandchildren, and mabye a nice game of bingo, or a nice vacation, or just surfing the net looking for blogs to write to.
    And just how did this person get the rifle? Who sold him the rifle?
    If he did not steal it and actually bought it, then did the gun shop do a background check before selling him a weapon? Who sold him the ammunition for the rifle? Criminal background checks should be done on anyone buying weapons or ammunition.
    And tell me again why we don't need stricter gun control laws?

    June 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm |
  10. Joyce Kimber

    It is very sad that we have to experience violent actions like the one at the Washington Holocaust Museum. The answer to such violent actions is to turn back to God and acknowledge His guidance to help us through whatever problem we are faced with today.

    God wants us to love one anothe and stop destroying one another with words and vicious actions promoted by race hate or any other type of malicious actions, which are devices of Satan.

    God wants us to demonstrate brotherly lovebecause we are all descendents from his created family. He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth to seek Him. We are all 'One Nation Under God' and share a brothrly relationship.

    If we exalt ourselves and think more highly of self than we ought, He abase. It is He who exalts and abase (make low) and He who renderd to every man according to his deed.

    June 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Mari

    @ Michael Ozaki MD.......... AMEN! I agree 100% with you. Even though I will get mean reactions to my blog comments, its okay, because I will not stand quietly by while the hate rhetoric of the far-right continues to spread hate, lies, fear and division in our Nation!

    The Faux News "entertainers" need to take responsibility for their inciting hate and fear among our citizens!

    I heard today that Glenn Beck had to retract a LIE he said on his 'show'; the LIE was that "the Federal government were building concentration camps"! ANOTHER far-right LIE! He did retract this vile statement, but how many people ......... believed him, any way?!

    June 12, 2009 at 1:05 pm |
  12. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Here's an idea. If you want to really look at hate crime in America, look at murder rates in places like New Orleans. Look at black on black crime. Or white on white. Or purple on purple. Or gang on gang. Whatever. Lives are lost every day in this country due to hate of some sort. Look at the response after Hurricane Katrina. It brought to the forefront hate and race and poverty issues the city of New Orleans and state tried to hide for centuries. One racist killing one guard matters. But it isn't any more indicative of hate in our country than the fact that low income families still can't get a break to build a house or rent in a decent neighborhood years after a storm. Spend less time worrying about the skinheads and bad maps and more time worrying about the real issues that face normal Americans every day. When you reconcile the daily issues of hate and race and that becomes unacceptable, the rest of it probably will be less appealing to these losers looking for attention and something to occupy their brain matter.

    June 12, 2009 at 12:25 pm |
  13. puggles

    Mike in NYC – I think you are wrong. If a white officer had been at the door and opened it for him, I rather think von Brunn would not have shot him point blank in the chest. Recall that von Brunn was railing about Blacks and Jews. It's just that there isnt a museum heralding the the African American experience or contributions to the US.

    One of the fundamental inalienable rights our country recognizes is free will. This means that people are allowed to make bad choices – as long as those choices do not infringe upon others' rights. This man was within his rights to rant and rave. It is when he picked up a loaded gun and sought to act upon those thoughts that he clearly infringed upon others' rights.

    This gets to be an interesting concern as we know that sometimes words can hurt more than sticks and stones. And when and how do we determine that those words cause more damage?

    There can be no such thing as a "Thought Police," but can there be an "Expression Police"?

    Clearly, we need more mental health services and training – on all levels.

    June 12, 2009 at 12:23 pm |
  14. Susan

    The First Amendment is important to me. I am proud to live ina country where my speech and my pen are free. I believe this freedom is sometimes used as a weapon & shield. I also believes this is a right that comes with responsibility.

    At one point I used to watch both CNN and Fox News. The latter became too judgemental. Facts were twisted and the commentators spewed them as they ranted & raved. Two emotions happen. (1) you fall for everything, wanting to recruit your friends or (2) you are screaming at the TV because the truth is not being told. I fell into the latter.

    Dr. Tiller, his office, and employees were slandered for several years. No one had to agree with the doctor or use his services, but he was not breaking the law. The rants, raves, and nickname took the First Amendment too far. Those who use the internet to publish home addresses are also going too far. Now Dr. Tiller is dead, his family is broken, women have one less doctor, and O'Reilly finds another cause while using his First Amendment rights to protect his speech. Chances are Dr. Tiller would be alive had Bill O'Reilly only reported a time or two. He used his right to incite and deserves to lose it. Imus lost his job for a one time tacky comment.

    I know this to be truth..the majority of Fox News commentators and Rush Limbaugh spread lies and hate. We have dead policemen, a doctor, a soldier, and now a security guard. The people who commit these crimes are your typical Fox/Limbaugh listener. President Obama has been attack by these folks every day. In the eyes of these people he can do nothing right & they are pleased as punch to pass it on. Will our president be next? Their lies are dangerous.

    If those who had done the killing had been of another race/religon the field day would be theirs. DHS warns us & they use their microphones to make fun and once again tear down the Obama administration. Who looks foolish now?

    America will fall if we do not stand together. If all the energy used against Dr. Tiller and President Obama were used correctly, imagine what all we could accomplish? Too much hate for 150 days!!

    A brave person will step up one day and the law will have an admendment added. No one will be allowed to incite for the purpose of hate or danger. It's a slippery slope, but it can be won.

    Springfield, Missouri

    June 12, 2009 at 12:14 pm |
  15. Kathy

    I think this guy – and the idiots in the "white supremecy" groups – are pathetic. However, I have never believed in the concept of a "hate" crime. Most murders result from "hate" of some sort [I hate my wife, I hate my boss, I hate Americans, I hate, I hate. . . ]. It is the act – not the emotion – that is the crime. We have always considered "method/motive" in determining the level of punishment [premeditated, act of passion, lying in wait, witness tampering, etc.] for enhancement purposes. However, I don't believe you can write good law – Constitutional law – judging someone based on their beliefs that may have motivated the crime. It is very PC – but not Constitutionally acceptable. This guy is a pig and killed people on purpose. In California, it is the death penalty – we shouldn't care what his reasons are "inside his head." That is and has always been a pedantic exercise that does nothing to deter, prevent or obtain justice for crimes.

    June 12, 2009 at 11:53 am |
  16. Michelle in AZ

    We monitor and arrest those people who are considered possible terrorist, sometimes before a crime has been committed. How are these people not considered terrorist? How many more people have to die before we realize the destruction this type of hate brings to the world?

    June 12, 2009 at 11:47 am |
  17. John

    Any belief rooted in an ideology of violence that is intended to intimidate or cause fear is terrorism. We are worried about international terror when we have plenty at home to deal with.

    Platform is one issue. The suspect in this case shouldn't be allowed to voice his idiotic view to TV crews. Remove his platform and you start to perhaps contain the problem.

    While you can't stop people from believing what they believe we can, as the majority make an effort to shout down these fringe elements with our collective voice. We have free speech. We need to be louder.

    June 12, 2009 at 11:45 am |
  18. Ai van

    When the churches stop preaching that the Jews killed Jesus, when all denominations of Christianity write a new bible that does not teach their followers that their way is the only way and all those who are different from them are damned we can start to live in peace and love.

    June 12, 2009 at 10:48 am |
  19. CMD

    I find it ironic that we are so focused on "not forgetting the hate groups when they're not killing," but we are no longer allowed to call terrorists – TERRORISTS.
    ALL of this type of activity – from schoolyard bullying to hate groups to acts like 9/11 – is terrorism. ANd yes, it starts with a word, a step, an act – and it starts in childhood.
    One idea is to bring in psychologists and behavior specialists for a roundtable think tank on how to change the direction and energy of these organized hate groups.
    Hate at its core is fear.
    Why are we so focused on teaching our young children about sex in our schools, but not focusing on general behavior modification and redirection?

    CMD

    June 12, 2009 at 10:39 am |
  20. Becky

    This may seem like a synical comment, but this type of behavior is not going to stop, it will go on and perhaps get worse and we cannot do anymore about it than we have done. Although, how did this nut get to where he got with that weapon in this building? This is what is so frustrating. We are all aware in this country of the dangers of this sort of tragic thing occuring, but yet we get off guard and forget and someone sneaks under the wire and boom. We have to stay aware, constantly. These type of people are anxious, psychotic people. They are always scheming and restless. Always up to something and preying. We have to stay on our toes, even in everyday life. I live alone, and I have learned, this is the way the world has become. Cut and dry. Enjoy your life, it's a beautiful world, but watch your back, every minute, every day, every waking hour. Awful way to have to think, but that's what it has become. Stay safe.

    June 12, 2009 at 10:39 am |
  21. Michael Ozaki MD

    It is said silence means consent. It is time to speak out against the hate mongers, the fear mongers, and those that advocate violence against others who hold different views, or live different life styles.That should include "entertainers" that drape themselves in the flag to spew forth their ideas of what their America should be.

    June 12, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  22. Sohail

    Freedom of Speech. Each person should have the freedom to express their views and opinions without censorship, a sign of civility. However, there needs to be an over-riding clause. If your words include incitement of violence, vile hate laced language or racial slurs, you are no longer just expressing a view, you have crossed the lines of civility and are now threatening someone's existence. I cannot believe this is a socially amenable freedom.

    June 12, 2009 at 10:05 am |
  23. Mike in NYC

    The bronze statue idea is idiotic. Johns was killed because he happened to be on duty that day, not because he was black.

    Speaking of "hate" crimes - Whites actually commit less than their share as a % of the population, and non-Whites commit more (according to a CNN story a couple of years back). Witness the black/Hispanic gang wars in LA. Those are racially motivated if nothing else.

    And making Holocaust denial a crime? You really don't want to go there, not in America.

    June 12, 2009 at 9:34 am |