A TERRIBLE irony stalks the fatal shooting at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this week: An institution that commemorates one of the greatest crimes in history was itself attacked by someone hell-bent on committing his own atrocity.
The person held for fatally shooting Stephen T. Johns, a black security guard at the Washington, D.C., museum, had lived a bigot's life. An 88-year-old white supremacist, James Wenneker von Brunn was dedicated to denying the Holocaust happened and spreading hatred against Jews and blacks.
The usual presumption of innocence stretches very thin in this case - the suspect was critically injured in a gun battle with other guards, after all - and the only real legal question may concern his sanity.
So this we can venture: When he arrived at the Holocaust Museum Wednesday, armed with a rifle and apparently ready to spread mayhem, Mr. Von Brunn came as a loser. Here was an institution containing tens of thousands of proofs that his whole world view was wrong. The Holocaust did happen. He had lost the argument.
In fact, he had lost the whole argument, and not just about the Holocaust. Once upon a time, society condoned anti-Semitism and hatred of blacks with a shrug. Casual slurs littered conversations from country clubs to blue-collar work sites. Americans were divided along separate but unequal lines, each group confined to its own ethnic redoubts, from hospitals to social groups. That was the way we were - the way that men like James von Brunn liked it.
That is not the way we are today. Nobody can say that prejudice has been utterly routed, but huge progress has been made. The very existence of the Holocaust Museum is but one symbol of the change. Every year, people of all races visit it and, in the spirit of common humanity, share the outrage. All across society, prejudices have softened, social barriers are lower. In the same city as this killing, an African-American sits in the White House.
James von Brunn could not stroll through the exhibits that others find so moving. He could not face the truth. It seems that all he could do was pick up a gun and put a horrific exclamation point on a failed life.
This bitter, throwback man is a reminder of the past, but the comfort is that such hatred can never turn back the clock.