BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Museum Reopens As Questions Rise
06/10/09

Assistant Managing Editor
Updated 430 p.m.
 With bullet-pocked doors replaced, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum reopened to the public Friday, with hundreds of visitors streaming past a makeshift memorial to the guard murdered there on Wednesday. Dozens of flowers were left surrounding a photo of Stephen T. Johns, which was inscribed with the legend "Righteous Gentile," a term generally applied to non-Jews who defied the Nazis to save Jews during the Holocaust. As the museum struggled to resume normal operations after the tragedy, investigators and extremism monitors sorted through the long trail of hate left by the accused gunman, James von Brunn, an 88-year-old Holocaust denier obsessed with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, who was arrested for storming the Federal Reserve with a gun in 1981. According to the FBI, a note in von Brunn's car, left parked outside the museum just before the attack, rants that:  "The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what Jew owners tell him to do. Jews captured America's money. Jews control the mass media. The 1st Amendment is abrogated --henceforth." Von Brunn lived with his son, Erik, and his girlfriend in Annapolis, Md. Over the weekend ABC News aired a statement from Erik von Brunn denouncing his father's actions and claiming his views tore the family apart. "His views consumed him, and in doing so, not only destroyed his life, but destroyed our family and ruined our lives as well," read the statement. "For a long time, I believed this was our family's cross to bear. Now, it is not only my families' lives that are in shambles, but those who were directly affected by his actions, especially the family of Mr. Johns, who bravely sacrificed his life to stop my father." His ex-wife told the New York Daily News she knew von Brunn would sink to violence. 
"I'm in a state of shock, but I'm not surprised he did it," the woman, who declined to be identified, told the paper. "He used to make the statement that he was going out with his boots on. I took it to mean that he was going to go out and try to take some people with him." 
She said he was consumed by conspiracy theories and "would talk about what the world would become in 20 or 30 years, that most of the country would be governed by black governors and that the Jewish people owned the media." Von Brunn was shot in the face by museum guards after he shot Johns with a .22 caliber rifle. He remains in critical condition at George Washington University Hospital. If he survives, he will be charged with capital murder as well as potential hate crime and civil rights charges, authorities said. As homeland security and other federal agencies ponder a new threat from "lone wolf" gunmen who affiliate with extremist groups mostly via the Internet, some monitors say that von Brunn's history and recent activities might have offered clues that he was planning to move from rhetoric to violence. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center said Thursday they had learned that James von Brunn transferred ownership of his Web site, Holy Western Empire, to a Michigan man, Steve Reimink, on June 1st, nine days before the deadly attack. “It makes you wonder,” said Heidi Beirich. “He had been running the site for nine years and suddenly turned around and handed it off to someone else. It could have been a possible signal that something was coming.” The Associated Press quoted another white separatist, John de Nugent, who said he corresponded with von Brunn by e-mail, as saying the messages had recently become more violent and that von Brunn had recently given away his computer. De Nugent, who lives near Pittsburgh, told the AP that von Brunn believed his extreme views had led the government to cut his Social Security benefits. Von Brunn, who has lived in New York, New Hampshire, Idaho and most recently Annapolis, Maryland, has a long history of anti-Semitic writings and was employed in the past by the Institute for Historical Review, which promotes “open debate” about the Holocaust. A vigil was held outside the museum at Raoul Wallenberg Plaza Thursday afternoon, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Some 200 people attended. The event included speeches and prayers by clergy from Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Bahaii traditions, as well as representatives of the German and Israeli embassies. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference, told the crowd, some of whom held candles, that the vigil was designed to show that "hate has no place in any of our community's religious traditions." He said, "Let's not let this terrorist divide us and prevent us from coming back here." Martin Peled-Flax, the Israeli Embassy's director for domestic political affairs, said Wednesday's attack showed that Holocaust denial is a "pernicious ideology that ultimately leads to insane violence," whether it comes from a "racist and anti-Semite" in Washington or at the highest levels of "leadership of the world stage," an apparent reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Museum chief of staff Bill Parson thanked the crowd, saying the "tremendous outpouring since the attack meant a lot. Johns, 39,  was shot immediately after the gunman entered the museum lobby, and reportedly held the door open for the shooter, unaware that he was armed. The museum was closed all day Thursday in his memory.
 "There are no words to express our grief and shock over today's events at the Museum, which took the life of Officer Steven Tyrone Johns," reads a message on the museum's Web site posted yesterday. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Johns' family." Flags outside the museum today are flying at half staff in memory of the fallen guard, who leaves behind a wife and son. The American Jewish Committee's Washington, D.C. chapter has set up a memorial fund to benefit them. The organization said it will soon have a place on its Web site where one can contribute, but those who want to donate immediately should send checks made out to the American Jewish Committee, with "Holocaust Museum Memorial Fund" in the memo line, to: American Jewish Committee, Washington Chapter C/O Melanie Maron, 1156 15th Street, NW, Suite 1201, Washington DC 20005. One hundred percent of the contribution will go to the Johns family. In his statement, President Obama said "this outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms." He added: "We have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends in this painful time." And New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said the attack was "yet another stark reminder that we must recommit our efforts to combat anti-Semitism and religious intolerance and provide the resources necessary to protect our non-profit and religious institutions." Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed resolutions Thursday condemning the shooting. Congress also offered condolences to Johns' family. The resolution in the House was authored by Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), and the resolution in the Senate was written by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Both note the bravery of employees and security personnel at the museum. The Senate version "condemns anti-Semitism and all forms of religious, ethnic, and racial bigotry" and "condemns acts of physical violence against, and harassment of, people based on race, gender, ethnicity, or religious affiliation." The House resolution says the body will redouble "its commitment to advance the mission of the museum to educate people about the Holocaust and fight against anti-Semitism, racism, hatred and intolerance." Von Brunn has record of criminal and white supremacist activity. On his Web site and in a book, "Kill The Best Gentiles," Von Brunn claims to expose "a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white gene pool." 
He served six years in jail for attempting to take hostages at gunpoint at the Federal Reserve Board in 1981, citing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory as his motive. Wednesday's incident took place shortly before 1 p.m. at the museum entrance, where visitors are scanned by metal detectors before entering the main hall. Police said the assailant was armed with a sawed-off shotgun. 
The museum was crowded with groups of school children at the time of the attack. 
A 14-year-old visitor, Lindsey Newman, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency she and her family were rushed inside the museum theater when the shots erupted, and took took shelter there for over an hour. "I thought we were going to die," Newman said. 
Other witnesses who were on line outside the museum when the shots broke out reported being told to "hit the floor." When the shooting ceased the visitors were told to quickly leave the area as police arrived.
 One person was injured by broken glass in the incident, said Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, citing information from authorities.
 “So far there have been a lot of conflicting reports,” Hoenlein told The Jewish Week minutes after the shooting.  "We are waiting to get more information from the FBI and [the Department of Homeland Security]. "
The Presidents Conference operates the Secure Community Network, which provides information on threatening activity to the Jewish community based on information from law enforcement sources. Hoenlein said there had been no prior warning of an imminent threat and that SCN officials had a routine meeting earlier this week.
 At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the shooter appeared to be a "lone gunman" but would not confirm his identity. She said the museum would be closed for the rest of the day during the investigation.
 The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors the activities of hate groups, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that it had collected extensive background information on von Brunn, also known as James Wennecke Brunn, and that he has a long history of anti-Semitic activity.
 "Brunn's evil attack, at the very place that was created to remember and teach about evil in the world, is an immediate reminder that words of hate matter," said ADL national director Abraham Foxman.
 The Southern Poverty Law Center also had extensive research on von Brunn prior to the attack, and said on its Web site that von Brunn has "close ties to prominent neo-Nazis." 
Hoenlein said that the immediate concern of SCN was  the possibility of so-called “copycat” incidents. 
The attack was the first violent incident at the museum since it opened in 1993. More than 30 million people have visited the exhibits, according to the museum Web site, including eight million children and 85 heads of state. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and other officials were to attend a performance of a play, "Ann and Emmett" at the museum Wednesday night. The performance was canceled. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

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10/08/2009 - 10:34

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