The ironies were as stark as they were horrific.
In a place, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, dedicated to showing the world the murderous results of anti-Semitism, an anti-Semite walked through the door and murdered another human being in an attempt to murder even more.
In the one national memorial in our capital devoted to naming and documenting the evil of religious, racial, social and political hatred, with the explicit objective of ending all such hatred through knowledge and understanding, a hate-filled racist gave convincing proof, as if we needed it, that the vaccine to eradicate baseless hate has not yet been found, and demonstrated once again the evil that ensues when hate and power – this time, in the form of a gun – come together.
In a time when it might appear that the African-American / Jewish alliances was a thing of the past and that both groups still had those among them who hung on to the fear and distrust of the other, we had but another example that, in substantive ways, the interests and the fate of Jews and of Blacks in this country are inextricably linked.
In the memorial built to remember and honor the slain victims of hatred, hatred took another life and illustrated in blood-red the need for the museum.
We deeply mourn the death of Stephen T. Johns, the 39 year old only son of his now grieving mother, a loving and engaged father to a now fatherless Stephen Junior. When we enter a museum and whiz past the security guard with barely any acknowledgement that there is a flesh and blood human being standing there, we don’t really think of him or her as standing on the front line of our defense. But that is exactly what they are doing and why they are there. Had Mr. Johns – or one of his colleagues – not been standing guard at the moment, there is no doubt but that there would be many many more grieving parents and fatherless children. We honor his service and that of all such persons wherever they stand to protect us.
Having visited the museum with our Confirmation class every year since it opened in 1993, not to mention the times that I was there without them, one of the things that is always heart-warming for me – if it is possible to associate the word “heart-warming” with a Holocaust museum – is the fact that in that place, the most visible and public identifiably Jewish building in the country, the Jewish story being told by teachers and tour guides of all races and religions. The story of the Holocaust comes alive for literally thousands of visitors each week, a small fraction of them Jewish, Americans and foreign visitors alike, protected by guards of every stripe who could have been elsewhere.
Of course, it is not just the Jewish story or even the story of the other victims of Nazism, it is also the story of the perpetrators, the resisters, the courageous Gentiles and those who stood idly by, whether they were standing idly up close or far away. It is the story of what can happen when bad people do evil and good people do nothing. It is the story of the destructive potential of language and of how we talk about others shapes how they will be treated. As Heschel said, Auschwitz was not built by bricks, but by words. The fact that our particular history is being taught to such a universal audience helps, if only in a miniscule way, to give meaning to the meaningless deaths of the innocent, in that it instills in any heart not already hardened the conviction that this, and other human atrocities, can never be allowed to happen again. And from that, arises hope that sometimes, somewhere, there will be a measure less evil, a measure less suffering, a measure more understanding, a measure more peace.
And now, the list of perpetrators has one more name, while, I would say, name of Stephen Johns has been added to the list of Holocaust victims. Mr. Johns, may his memory be for a blessing, slain by one who furthered the values for which Hitler stood as he stood in defense of the principle that truth helps ensure human dignity.
In its literature, the Holocaust Museum describes itself as providing “a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values.” The murder at the museum provided these same lessons again:
#1 Freedom is fragile. It can be lost, it can be misused. Like love, freedom demands hard work. How do we balance the freedom of speech with the need to protect? After this maniac did what he did, commentators went to what he had written on the Internet and saw how hateful he was and how he was encouraging others to rise up against the Blacks and the Jews. Adding this to his prior storming of another public space with a rifle, these mavens determined that all the signs were there that could have predicted his actions. Great! After a crime, hindsight has the luxury of being 20-20.
But that begs the question: what about the thousands of others spewing out hatred of all variety, disrespect for the law, and what appears to be incitement to violence and spreading it with the speed of light around like the most harmful of computer viruses? There is no law against hating, (except, of course, in the Torah – Leviticus 19 – just before that “love your neighbor as yourself: thing). And yes, when some loose their freedom of speech, we all do. But when do hateful words lead to hateful actions, and demagoguery to death? That is the challenge of a free society. Suppression cannot be the answer – vigilance is our best, yet imperfect defense.
#2 The “myth of progress” – what exactly is that? I believe that the myth of progress is a remnant of the 19th century industrial revolution and the optimism that came in its wake. People thought that through science and technology, the ills of the world could be cured and that as history plays itself through time, things get better and stay better. The implication also is that people get better and better all the time. Of course, that would mean that when people improve themselves and raise their values and correct character deficiencies, when they have children, the children will pick up where the parents left off. The human race is thus advanced. (It is also the optimism of parents who envision their children having a future devoid of the problems and challenges they themselves faced.)
On the one hand, scientific and technical progress has been made and there is no forgetting what has been learned. Once a cure is found for something, it works until a better one comes along (or a resistant virus or bacteria evolve).
But when it comes to the human character, how people relate to people and nations to nations, society starts afresh with each newborn. If the insanity of WWI did not blow the myth of progress out of the water, then the unspeakable inhumanity of WWII should have.
As visitors to the Holocaust Museum ascend in the elevator which brings them to the beginning of the narrative, there is a brief film of American soldiers coming across a concentration camp, its piles of victims and skeletal survivors, and a voice of an incredulous G.I., expressing their horror. The last phrase you hear as the elevator door opens is his incredulous, “Things like that just don’t happen!” You then step into the exhibits that bear painful witness that, yes, things like this DO happen.
For me, the Shoah is a watershed event in that it shattered human naïveté and proved that the unthinkable is doable. And in that way, it foreshadowed much of the unthinkable acts, large and small, which have followed since, done in the name of religion or sect or tribe or country or race or any of the other idolatrous “isms” that have been elevated over the sanctity, dignity and worth of the human person.
And that is why, when we heard that someone had walked into the entrance of the Holocaust Museum and opened fire we were shocked and horrified, but tragically, not really surprised. We have been witness in our own lifetimes to other violent acts of hatred within these borders: doctors shot in church or through their living room windows by “pro-life” murderers, children in an Oklahoma City Day Care Center, the many Matthew Shepards of the past killed by gay-hating cowards, lynchings of Blacks, usually associated with the South, but which occurred in every state in the continental US except Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont. No, I, at least was not surprised.
#3 The need for vigilance in preserving democratic values. For me, that means keeping America true to its vision of itself. This is a nation bound together, not by racial, religious, class, or even geographic ties, but by our allegiance to a set of values and a vision of a society in constant struggle to understand and implement more fully the implications of the self-evident truth that all are created equal. Americans are defined by our understanding that basic human rights are not benevolent gifts of the state which can be taken away, but are imbued by our creator, embedded in what it means to be persons. The real America is not this group or that group, this political party or that. The real America is not, as I heard Bill O’Reilly say on the “Today Show,” the great middle of the country, as opposed to the parenthesis comprised of the east and west coasts. America is about a shared understanding of what it means to be a human being and the rights that pertain, and about creating society and civilization with other human beings based on safeguarding those rights. People who hate in the name of America need to know that, in doing so, it is they who are un-American. Those who would define a true American as being of any given race, religion, or political party must know that this is one of the least American things one can do. People who trash others whose ancestors came over on a later ship, themselves have missed the boat.
Sure, there are conflicting messages out there. It is true, as our white supremacist believes, that most American citizens are Caucasian as of right now; but America is not a white nation and will not became less American as the average American skin color darkens. Most Americans are Christian, but this does not make America a Christian nation. Our favorite color is plaid, our religion is all and none at the same time.
We, our leaders, our celebrities and our would-be heroes need to talk about the democratic ideals that make us Americans. Much of the strength of our nation comes from its diversity, and, above all, from its ability to improve and reinvent itself when called upon, as provided for in our founding documents itself. I believe that out founders envisioned an historic process which would, over time, lead to the expansion and furthering of human rights, not the limiting of them. As Dr. King expressed, “The arch of history bends towards justice.”
All this is to say that the attack on the holocaust museum was a vindication for its continued existence, proof of its necessity. This democracy of ours is a precious thing, the freedoms we live and the visions we share can not be taken for granted. What this means is that the job is never done. Like the Levites in the Torah who were commanded to continually put wood on the sacred fire outside of the tent of meeting to burn from night until day, we must never cease the work of keeping the light of decency and human dignity aflame. Victory against evil today does not ensure that it will not rear its head tomorrow. We need to keep that light burning brightly, even in the darkest of nights, especially in the darkest of nights.