Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Death of the Holocaust Museum Shooter

The white supremacist who opened fire inside the entrance to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in June, 2009, has died.  He had been charged with murder in the death of museum security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, who was shot in the incident, as well as various other crimes including hate crimes.  He was 89 years old, and probably didn't figure he'd come out of the museum alive in the first place.  He was undergoing competency testing at a prison hospital prior to his death. His lawyer, public defender A.J. Kramer, commented, "It is a sad end to a very sad occurrence."

The shooter in this case was a Holocaust denier.  That is to say, he believed that the Holocaust was a lie.  He thought, and taught others, that 6 million Jews, as well as gays, Roma, people with disabilities and other groups, were not systematically murdered by the Nazis during World War II.  He said that Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was a hoax.

Since I first wrote about this in June, when it happened, I've had some opportunity to reflect on the theme I proposed back then -- that for Jews such as myself this incident was personally traumatic.  At the end of December, I took my 11 year-old daughter for her first visit to the museum and experienced again through her eyes as well as through mine.  We noted the small but tasteful memorial to Officer Johns in the lobby, which says that he was killed protecting the public from the very hate the museum seeks to dispel.

I've decided, though, that I think the hate is only one part of the issue here.  For Jews who lived in Europe during World War II, the Holocaust was, for obvious reasons, a direct trauma. It also represents, in many ways, a secondary trauma for the rest of the Jewish community.  Even for those of us who were not alive at the time, the fact that someone sought to systematically exterminate every person like us, and succeeded about a third of the way, is viscerally frightening.  It represents a danger that no one likes to think about.  Everyone can and should be horrified by the images of the concentration camps and the ghettos, but Jews also see themselves in those pictures.  They see buildings and objects that are specifically familiar to their lives.  For both my daughter and myself, for example, the most upsetting part of the Holocaust Museum is the display of Torah scrolls, torn to pieces and piled up on top of one another.  We know on a gut level what that signifies in our lives.

The fact that this shooter was a white supremacist and anti-semite, therefore, is actually somewhat less distressing than that he was a Holocaust denier. Denying someone's trauma is a particularly pernicious thing to do.  People who have been through a trauma already have a feeling of unreality, like this can't possibly have really happened, and yet they know it did.  To tell them it didn't is asking them to seriously question their own sanity.  It takes away the one thing the person can call their own, which is their individual experience of the trauma.  Telling millions of Jews that they didn't go through what they went through, that their families weren't killed, that the damage to those scrolls and the scenes in those pictures didn't happen, tells them that they are crazy.  It's just plain evil.

So now the shooter is dead.  As his lawyer said, this is the end of this occurrence.  With his death, however, the Jewish community lost the opportunity to say in some formal way that what this man believed was wrong, that the Holocaust did happen, and that shooting people to prove they made it up is not what the civilized world is about.  Yes, we know that most of America doesn't think the way he did or condone the actions he took.  On some level, I think it would have been healing to some of us if he had been forced to know that, too.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive