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Holocaust Museum shooting and political posturing

I learned about Wednesday’s shooting at the Holocaust Museum via Twitter, as I do much breaking news these days. More specifically, though, I saw people whom I follow on Twitter asking #tcot, the conservative Twitter organization, if they’d condemned the shooter’s actions yet.

88-year-old James W. von Brunn shot and killed African-American security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns at the Washington, D.C. Museum, where African-American Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to attend a play later in the day. Von Brunn was known as a white supremacist, maintaining a Web site dedicated to his “cause” and having spent over six years of an 11-year sentence in prison for attempting to kidnap Federal Reserve members, including then-chairman Paul Volcker.

Almost no one will defend von Brunn’s actions today publicly the way some have defended the killing of Dr. George Tiller. Yet the last thing we need is to start pointing fingers back and forth as to who deserves the blame for this shooting. Horrific actions of domestic terrorism—and a racially or ethnically motivated attack at a very public museum that memorializes those who died in genocide is terrorism as surely as Tiller’s killing was—will not be solved by sniping at one another.

What is large-scale terrorism but a massive hate crime, designed to frighten a specific group into compliance with the terrorist’s policies? And what is an individual hate crime but an act of terrorism? We don’t know what von Brunn’s reasons were for entering the museum with a rifle this week, but we know that in 1981 he wanted to “place the treasonous Federal Reserve Board of Governors under legal, non-violent, citizens arrest.” It also appears that he considered the U.S. federal income tax a Jewish plot. Tiller’s killer wanted to intimidate other abortion providers into giving up as well as to eliminate Tiller’s practice.

Hate crime legislation is a messy proposition, but in cases like this the most liberal prison reformist may find themselves wanting to lock the gunmen up and throw away the key. Still, we prize free speech in this country, and irony of ironies, we would not have known von Brunn’s motivations were he not able to maintain his hateful Web site. This, and the killing of Dr. Tiller, should not push progressives into supporting clampdowns on free speech.

Nor should it provoke us into playing the blame game with right-wing mouthpieces like Glenn Beck. It is no more the fault of critics of Israel than it is of the Republican party that one man took his racist quest to a violent conclusion.

We may ask what von Brunn was doing with guns, having already served time for a gun-related offense. We can call for extended sentencing for hate crimes or demand expansion of the right-wing domestic terrorist watch list, that just two months ago was being criticized for overreaching. We can blame those who stoked anger at Obama with a tea-party campaign or insinuated that people should buy guns now since Obama was going to take them away. But none of those things are going to cure the problems that sent von Brunn into the museum.

Arguing over whose side the killer was on is as simplistic, reductive, and plain stupid as arguing about whether the Columbine shooters were victims of bullies or crazed Marilyn Manson fans (they were neither). It misses the point entirely.

We have a culture, especially in the Obama years, in which a radical fringe feels newly disempowered, and acts of terrorism like this are perpetrated by people who feel threatened. They take up arms in some attempt to go after the ones they blame for their situation. They may believe their actions will change things, or just be angry or disturbed enough to want to go out in a hail of gunfire.

But blaming each other won’t help. A man was killed today, his death lost in political posturing, and a social problem far bigger than political parties is being obfuscated by the need to point fingers.


Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.