By Eugene Robinson
We are blessed to live at a time when violent acts of hatred based on race, ethnicity or religion have become rare, at least in this country. As the act of terrorism committed Wednesday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum should remind us, though, rare doesn’t mean nonexistent.
James W. von Brunn, the 88-year-old white supremacist who allegedly took a rifle into the museum and killed security guard Stephen Johns, is more than a bitter, demented old man. He is a known figure in the domestic hate industry, a venom-spewing polemicist whose Web site offered readers the chance to download the opening chapters of his racist, anti-Semitic tome for free—and to buy the rest of the book for the bargain price of 10 bucks.
Apparently, there weren’t enough takers. The Washington Post reported Thursday that acquaintances say von Brunn had become virtually destitute and was complaining that “someone in Washington” had cut his Social Security benefits as punishment for his political views. His recent e-mail blasts were apocalyptic. “It’s time to kill all the Jews,” said one.
It’s easy to surmise that von Brunn, a rabid Holocaust denier, could have chosen the Holocaust museum as a target because he thought it would offer the opportunity to kill Jews. His writings show that he also hates black people with great passion, however, so perhaps he took some measure of sick satisfaction in allegedly gunning down the 39-year-old Johns, an African-American.
In April, a prescient Department of Homeland Security memo predicted that the election of the first African-American president and the advent of economic hard times could worsen the threat from “right-wing extremist groups.” In particular, the memo warned of an increase in anti-Semitic activity by extremists who buy into the whole Jewish-banker-secret-cabal paranoid fantasy—and would blame “the Jews” for engineering the global financial crisis, just as they blame “the Jews” for everything.
For days, some conservative commentators tried mightily to paint the memo as an underhanded attempt by the Obama administration to smear its honorable critics by equating “right wing” with “terrorism.” It made no difference to these loudmouths that the number of hate groups around the country has increased by more than 50 percent since 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It didn’t matter that the memo was backed up by solid intelligence and analysis. For these infotainers, the point isn’t to illuminate a subject by putting it in the light but to blast it with heat.
And it wasn’t just the Sean Hannitys, Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world who pretended to be outraged. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele accused the administration of trying “to segment out Americans who dissent from this administration, to segment out conservatives in this country who have a different philosophy or view from this administration, and labeling them as terrorists.” Steele seems to have decided that telling the truth isn’t nearly as important as the high-temperature exercise known as “firing up the base.”
The thing is, though, that words have consequences.
There’s profit for the pundits, and perhaps personal advantage for some politicians, in calling President Obama a “socialist” and calling Judge Sonia Sotomayor a “racist Latina” and claiming that Democrats want to “take away your guns”—in creating and nurturing a sense of grievance among those inclined to be aggrieved. But what about those who might not understand that it’s all just political theater?
The Homeland Security memo made the assessment that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” It recalled an April 4 incident in which three Pittsburgh-area police officers were killed, and said “the alleged gunman’s reaction reportedly was influenced by his racist ideology and belief in anti-government conspiracy theories related to gun confiscations, citizen detention camps, and a Jewish-controlled ‘one world government.’ ”
It’s clear that James von Brunn was a firm believer in this whole insane scenario long before the financial meltdown or Obama’s election. Maybe it was his personal financial situation that allegedly pushed him over the edge. Maybe he reached a point of no return years ago, when he made a bizarre attempt to take members of the Federal Reserve Board hostage.
What we don’t know is whether all the blast-furnace rhetoric coming from the right is giving validation and encouragement to some confused, angry man or woman with a rifle or a truck full of fertilizer—the next “lone wolf,” preparing to howl.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group