Stepping Up to Defy Intolerance
Saturday, June 13, 2009
They came by the hundreds, from Florida and Ohio, New York and Texas, passing through the same entrance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where two days earlier security officers shot a man who had gunned down one of their own.
The museum was closed Thursday in honor of the guard, Stephen T. Johns, who died from his wounds, and an avowed white supremacist has been charged. For many visitors, the reopening yesterday was an opportunity to make a statement of defiance against intolerance.
"We can't let hatred win," said William Dailey, a teacher at Jefferson Junior High School in Toledo who was chaperoning a school trip.
Toward the head of the line was Tammi Miller, 17, visiting Washington with her family from South Florida. Miller was in the museum Wednesday and was evacuated by way of a fire escape when the shooting began.
"It's important to come back, because if you don't, they win," she said. "It's a form of terrorism."
Gone was the yellow police tape. The glass doors scarred by bullets had been replaced. Instead, there were couples and families, school groups and Girl Scouts, assembling on a sunny morning to create what museum officials said was a heartening sight: a normal day.
Wednesday was anything but normal. Authorities said James W. von Brunn double-parked his red Hyundai on 14th Street, made his way to the museum with a long rifle at his side, then shot Johns in the chest. Two other officers, Jason McCuiston and Harry Weeks, immediately returned fire, hitting von Brunn, who remained in critical condition yesterday at George Washington University Hospital.
Also yesterday, more details emerged about the days leading up to the incident. Von Brunn went to the U.S. Naval Academy two weeks ago, anxious to express his unhappiness with the school's success in recruiting minorities to its incoming class. His visit came a few days after Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, superintendent of the academy, said in an interview with The Washington Post, "Diversity is my number one goal."
The class that will be inducted July 1 is the most diverse in academy history. Von Brunn arrived at the academy's main gate, which is three miles from his Annapolis apartment, May 29. He entered an administrative building and asked to meet with a senior official to express his dissatisfaction, an academy spokesman said. His request was denied, but he met with a staff member. He left without making threats, the spokesman said, but because of the "extreme views he expressed regarding minorities," his visit was reported to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
An acquaintance said this week that von Brunn had recently complained that his Social Security had been cut because of his extremist views. Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said privacy laws prevented him from discussing von Brunn's situation. In general, he said, a recipient's benefits could be reduced under circumstances such as failure to pay child support, extra government health benefits or a debt owed the government. "No one who is receiving Social Security benefits would see their benefits reduced because of any views or opinions they expressed," he said.
At the museum, visitors began lining up well before it opened at 10 a.m. Among the crowd was Ida Rowe, assistant principal of P.S. 201 in Queens, N.Y. She had come to Washington with 42 fifth-graders and wasn't about to change their plans, scheduled in February, to visit the museum.
"I'm just so thrilled to see that we're among a group of people who have courage and will not let hate and fear interfere with our personal freedoms and our responsibility to educate our children," she said.
Museum Director Sara Bloomfield said the crowds were about normal, if not slightly higher, for this time of year. The majority of groups whose trips were canceled have rescheduled. The people who descended on the museum were performing "an act of defiance," she said and were an illustration "of what this country is all about."
As for the museum staff, she said that "as grief-stricken as we are, we are now more dedicated than ever to carry out our work."
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writers Ashley Halsey III and Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.