Holocaust Museum Shooting: Overcoming Violence and Anti-Semitism

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Walter Reich
Former Holocaust Museum Director; Current Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University
Thursday, June 11, 2009; 11:30 AM

Dr. Walter Reich, a former director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, took your questions about about violence and hate crimes, the cultural impact of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and more.

Reich, a psychiatrist by training, was the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995-1998, and is currently the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at The George Washington University and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Would you agree there has seemingly been an increase of high profile hate killings recently? In Kansas an abortion provider, here in Washington at the USHMM, and elsewhere, with key groups under attack...what do you make of this? Follow up question, how do we ensure that the hatemongers are limited in their ability to acquire a platform from which the media re-introduce stereotypes into social consciousness?

Walter Reich: The killing of the abortion provider in Kansas achieved a particularly high profile because of the high and broadly-held feelings regarding abortion. That killing, and the killing yesterday at the Holocaust Museum, don't, I believe, represent a general increase in hate-crimes.

Regarding limiting the ability of persons who carry out these acts to attract an audience: We can't, and certainly shouldn't, limit press-coverage of such acts. I believe that, in 1981, the man who killed the guard at the Holocaust Museum yesterday tried to commit another violent act in order, he said, to be able to have an opportunity to make a public statement of his views.

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Rockville, Md.: Some loony geriatric acts out with a gun and it becomes a "broad social concern!" Sure there's anti-Semitism here in the land of the free. But the root cause is the same as it was in Germany and France and everywhere else, disenfranchisement of the poor, which has nothing to do with Jews and everything to do with an economic system that prioritizes profits over people!

Walter Reich: Economic issues, as well as many others, contribute in various ways to hate crimes, including anti-Semitic crimes. But economic issues aren't the single "root cause" of such crimes. And with regard to anti-Semitism, many other beliefs contribute to such actions.

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Washington, D.C.: We all are saddened by the events. As a D.C.-area resident and one that frequents government office buildings I think there is an inherent flaw in the approach to security.

I noticed this as I approach Congressional office buildings. Security is set back in the buildings at and beyond the metal detector. I understand the logic to catch hidden weapons. A casual criminal is deterred by this system. However, others knowing of the security become criminals with blatant intent. They aren't going through metal detectors and are approaching the 1st layer as confrontation. In turn the security folks become sitting ducks.

Recall the Capitol shooting a few years back. The guy made it into the capitol and shoot an officer. More needs to be done outside and approaching the buildings.

Walter Reich: It's always important to find ways to improve security. Every suggestion, such as yours, is valuable, and should be offered to an agency or a building.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it possible to read the shooter's screeds without going to the Web site he had? I'm often curious about just what motivates people like this to be so hateful, but I feel uneasy about giving their sites traffic. I don't want to be assumed to support such opinions, or to increase site traffic and thereby encourage people of a similar mindset.

washingtonpost.com: We have some quotes from there here -- A Suspect's Long History of Hate, and Signs of Strain -- but not extended excerpts.

Walter Reich: I think it's important that people acquaint themselves with the beliefs of people who carry out acts such as this, or who threaten such acts. And these days, most of those beliefs are on websites of various kinds; they're set up either by the persons who have those beliefs or by organizations that are dedicated to monitoring them. If you're concerned about not wanting to increase the website traffic of these organizations, you can visit the websites that monitor hate groups.

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Great Falls, Va.: Doesn't the museum have a security checkpoint? Or did this man start shooting before he got to the checkpoint?

Walter Reich: Information about the circumstances of the shooting are in the news story in the Washington Post.

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Gainesville, Va.: I beg of the Post and other media outlets to spend more time focusing on the victim Stephen Johns and his family than on the idiot who committed this crime. He paid the ultimate price to protect visitors to the museum.

washingtonpost.com: Johns profile: Grief, Shock After 'Outstanding' Guard Loses His Life in the Line of Duty

Walter Reich: Stephen Johns paid the ultimate price. The Post has done good reporting on Mr. Johns, and I hope it does more. I also hope it and other news organizations help the public understand more about the world out of which the shooter comes.

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Frederick, Md.: At 88-years-old he was old enough to serve in WWII. Did he? If so where (Europe or Asia)? How did he live through that era and still deny the Holocaust?

Walter Reich: Holocaust denial is generally espoused by people who have an anti-Semitic agenda. Sometimes this agenda overlaps, in whole or in part, with an anti-Zionist agenda. The most famous and influential Holocaust denier in the world today is the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Facts are irrelevant, or are brushed away, when it comes to Holocaust denial.

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Capitol Hill: I grew up in California and I honestly never knew antisemitism existed. Then I went to college in Texas and heard the stereotypes of Jewish people for the first time.

I was stunned that people my age truly believed these false generalizations -- things like "Jews control the media" that are just obviously, patently untrue.

So much of racism relies on stereotype. I never heard the stereotypes, so I had no reason to prejudge Jews.

If you could design a curriculum with the goal of eliminating antisemitism (if not all racism), what would it entail? Would you expose the stereotypes as false? Or does that simply extend the lies to a new generation?

Walter Reich: Anti-Semitism is sometimes called "the longest hatred," and I'm afraid that that's true. It has been in existence, often very violently so, for about two thousand years. Many factors have contributed to its persistence, including religious factors. It would be very hard to expunge it, but it would be profoundly wrong not to try--just as it would be profoundly wrong not to try expunging, or at least diminishing, all kinds of racism.

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Ryde, U.K.: This is slightly off-topic but relevant to the politics of hate. Here in the U.K. a collapse in voter trust gave a chance to a far-right political party in recent elections, and they secured two seats. Dr. Reich, do you think that the recent democratic renewal in the U.S., evident in the high participation in this year's presidential election, may, in time, serve to strengthen American society against the influence of racism?

Walter Reich: Strengthening democracy helps in the struggle against racism. It certainly doesn't eliminate it--but it helps.

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Richmond, Va.: Do you favor the Government putting gag restrictions on shows like Rush Limbaugh that may be inflaming these sort of acts?

Walter Reich: I'm not in favor of the government limiting free speech unless such speech could have an immediate consequence of causing death or harm--such as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.

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Memorial Fund: Do you know if there be a memorial fund establish for Mr. Johns's son?

Walter Reich: I'm afraid I don't know if there is such a memorial fund.

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In response to Rockville, MD: Anti-Semitism has a long history, going back hundreds (maybe even a thousand?) years in Europe, long before Hitler. It has its roots in religious beliefs that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ (this belief was finally officially denounced by the Catholic Church with Vatican II). Over time it has grown and fed into a whole host of lies concocted by anti-Semites and the like to blame Jews for every possible problem that ever existed. Disenfranchisement of the poor is not by any means a non-factor, but hardly the only factor in this sad tale.

Walter Reich: Alas, anti-Semitism is even older than a thousand years. t's probably twice as old. And yes, many stereotypes have been added to the Christ-killer allegation, such as the belief that the Jews control finance, the media and governments, and such as the belief that the Jews are plotting to control the world. One of the most persistent modern anti-Semitic tracts is the forgery known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which makes these allegations and continues to be published and read, especially, these days, in the Arab/Muslim world. I understnad that the website of the shooter in the Holocaust Museum included the "Protocols."

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Fingers crossed: "The most famous and influential Holocaust denier in the world today is the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Hopefully, after tomorrow, he'll be the FORMER president of Iran.

Walter Reich: In some measure because of his statements about wiping Israel off the map and because of his effort toward nuclearization--which would provide the means to do this, as well as cause immense havoc and death in the region and beyond--I hope you're right. But I'm afraid he's not the only Iranian politician with such views and goals.

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Laurel, Md.: Assuming the suspect is found guilty and goes to prison, he will almost certainly get involved with prison white supremacist gangs, where he will be treated as a hero.

Even if he avoids prison, which seems possible considering his age, he's probably going to be considered a hero amongst people with similar beliefs. How do you deal with that?

Walter Reich: He may well be considered a hero by some white supremacists, though I understand that some have disavowed him.

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20006: During your tenure as director, was planning for security a large effort, and do you know how much of that changed due to 9/11?

Walter Reich: Institutions that involve Jewish themes are potential targets, of course.

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Reston, Va: Sadly, the museum will need to beef up surveillance. Perhaps imaging technology would help.

Walter Reich: Any technology that helps stop such attacks must be considered. A balance must always be struck between public safety and the privacy of visitors to a public institution. But public safety is of extreme importance.

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Washington DC: Perhaps I'm misunderstanding something fundamental, but can you explain why someone with anti-Semitic viewpoints would also be a Holocaust denier? I would think that the opposite would be true, and that they would be proudly supporting the events that occurred 60 years ago. It it as simple as they express those viewpoints when among similar minded people, but realize that such opinions are unacceptable in public?

I was just at the museum on Monday, and while the experience then was powerful, yesterday's events have driven home even deeper the importance of such institutions.

Walter Reich: This is a very important question, and I wish it were possible to respond to it adequately in this format. Alas, it isn't; we have only a couple of minutes to go in this session. In a way, the Holocaust gave anti-Semitism an especially bad image. It showed what anti-Semitism can lead to. That's one of the reasons anti-Semites deny that the Holocaust happened--in a way, to make anti-Semitism less unacceptable. I'm afraid, though, that, after several decades of diminished anti-Semitism following the Holocaust, it has resurfaced, and rabidly so, in several parts of the world, including Europe and the Middle East.

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Walter Reich: Thanks to all of you for your excellent questions. I wish I were able to respond to all of them, and at length. This is an event that will continue to be in the news for a while--and I hope it provokes more questions and more answers, or at least attempts at answers. Thank you!

Walter Reich

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