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?
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