A Gunman at the Holocaust Museum

Thursday, June 11, 2009

THE UNITED STATES Holocaust Museum is a living memorial, a place where visitors go to confront hatred, learn the danger of prejudice and promote human dignity. Yesterday this most special place was the setting for a tragic lesson in the worst and best of human behavior. A gunman, seemingly motivated by a profound hate, entered the downtown museum and opened fire; he was stopped by security guards, one of whom sacrificed his life.

Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, of Temple Hills. Mr. Johns, who had worked at the museum for six years, died of gunshot wounds after yesterday's confrontation with the gunman, identified as James W. von Brunn, 88. According to early police accounts, Mr. von Brunn, a man known to law enforcement authorities as a white supremacist with a hatred for Jews, walked into the Holocaust Museum and opened fire with a rifle. He was critically wounded when Mr. Johns and another guard returned fire. The museum is one of the capital's most-visited sites and so, if not for the actions of Mr. Johns and his colleague, the loss could have been far greater.

Several Holocaust visitors described the incident as "unbelievable" because it occurred in a place that, by memorializing the near-extinction of a people, is designed to prevent violence. One woman, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said the shooting demonstrates that hatred and prejudice are never-ending. Given the vile beliefs that news accounts have ascribed to the suspect, that view is understandable. But the hope that was enshrined in the Holocaust Museum when it opened in 1993 is that exposing the horrors of hate and prejudice will move people to tolerance.

The museum will be closed today to honor Mr. Johns. Authorities must thoroughly investigate this incident to confirm that Mr. von Brunn acted alone, as was initially believed. Security procedures should be rechecked. And then the memorial should return to its mission. Given the sorrows and hatreds that persist throughout the world, no reminder was needed of the importance of that job. Yet such a reminder was delivered yesterday, in a most unexpected place.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company