An 88-year-old white supremacist shot and killed African-American security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Wednesday, just before being shot by return fire from two other guards.
Law enforcement sources, who initially refused to name the shooter yesterday, identified the man as James W. von Brunn, an elderly Maryland man with a long history of white supremacist ties. He is still at hospital in “critical condition.”
Von Brunn is, according to a website he maintains called “The Holy Western Empire,” a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Navy. He’s billed his website as “a new, hard-hitting expose of the Jew conspiracy to destroy the white gene pool.”
Von Brunn has a daunting criminal record. In 1981, armed with two guns, a knife and a mock bomb, he entered the Federal Reserve’s Washington headquarters in an attempt to kidnap officials. He was subsequently arrested on attempted kidnapping, assault, second-degree burglary and weapons charges.
Von Brunn said he tried to commit the crime because he was upset with high interest rates and the state of the economy, which was at that time in a recession. He blamed the Jews for the issue.
After a trial von Brunn was sentenced to six years in prison, a sentence he blamed on a “Negro jury” and a “Jew judge.”
He is also a known Holocaust denier. Von Brunn committed Wednesday’s shooting on the day the museum was set to stage a play about Anne Frank, just two days before what would have been her 80th birthday. He’s said he thinks “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a hoax.
He now faces first-degree murder charges and, if convicted, could face the death penalty.
“There was blood everywhere”
On Wednesday, the shooter, armed with a rifle, walked into the museum around 12:50 p.m. and shot a guard near the security checkpoints and metal detectors.
CNN reports the guard opened the door for the 88-year-old, after which von Brunn pulled out his rifle and shot Officer Johns.
Police Sgt. David Schlosser told reporters two other guards acted quickly and open fired on the assailant, striking him with a bullet.
The Washington Post reports a third person sustained minor injuries in the event.
A young woman interviewed by CNN said she heard five shots and saw the guard lying face down on the ground bleeding. She told the reporter that guards demanded the gunman “drop the weapon.” When he didn’t respond, the two guards began shooting.
“There was blood everywhere,” she said.
Another witness told the Post that he was in line for tickets with his wife and two grandchildren when the shots were fired. He then heard someone yell “hit the deck!” and his family immediately ducked for cover.
They were then evacuated along with a “couple thousand” others, including students on a school trip. All the students are reportedly unharmed.
Joseph Persichini, assistant director of the Bureau’s Washington field office, said the FBI had no prior knowledge of the attack.
“Preliminary indication is that this incident involved a lone suspect. At this time, we have no additional intelligence information to indicate threats to area landmarks but will monitor the situation closely,” he added.
The Post reports bomb sniffing dogs were deployed to some of the more than 100 locations listed in a notebook found in the gunman’s car.
However, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said the attack was an “isolated incident.”
The Israeli embassy issued a statement expressing their sadness over the attack.
President Obama has also expressed grief. “This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms,” he said.
In a statement posted on its website, the Holocaust Museum said Officer Johns “died heroically in the line of duty.” The museum will close Thursday to honor Officer Johns.
Professor says she’s not surprised by shooting
Maki Haberfield, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem alumni and professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says she isn’t surprised this event took place in the nation’s capital.
“If one looks at the proliferation of the right wing militias in this country and their mantras that they, quite openly, place on the web, it is not surprising that we just witnessed this event,” she said Wednesday just hours after the shooting.
Haberfield believes websites that openly display anti-American and racially charged hate should be moderated.
“It should be prevented. There is a freedom of speech but not a freedom of hate speech that incites violent acts. Hate speech is and should be an exception to the freedom of speech,” she said.
She also suggested the U.S. government dedicate more resources to battling homegrown terrorism and train local law enforcement to deal with immediate threats that federal officials wouldn’t be able to handle in a timely manner.
“Local law enforcement is better positioned to identify the homegrown threat,” she said. “[The U.S. should] allocate funds for local law enforcement to have more training and awareness towards home grown groups…[and] start looking at the various modalities of the white neo-Nazis.”
In the past some have argued that security guards at museums should not carry guns since they protect what is, essentially, an educational facility. Haberfield however thinks in places of high sensitivity, like the Holocaust Museum, guards should carry weapons to protect what, for many neo-Nazis, is a symbolic target.
Haberfield also evaluated the emotions of the two guards who shot von Brunn. She praised their quick thinking and good judgement.
“Fear, fear and more fear. People assume that armed individuals, be it police officers or private security, experience high pressured situations in a different way than an average person – it is not true, they are just better equipped to respond in a desired manner but the emotions are the same,” she added.