Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Shooting at the Holocaust Museum

by J J Cohen

Most ITM readers will have heard that yesterday afternoon a man double parked his car in from of the the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, quickly entered the building, and shot a guard in the chest. Stephen T. Johns died later in the day at the GW hospital. The attacker would have killed more people had he not been fired upon by other guards. The museum was filled (as it is every summer day) with tourists and school groups. The marble floors were, in the wake of the shootings, streaked with blood.

James W. von Brunn, the murderer, is described in most media reports as a hard core white supremacist who even at eighty-eight years of age was posting rage-filled screeds against Jews and African Americans on the internet.

I don't have much to say about this event other than it breaks my heart. I keep thinking of Stephen Johns, who died because he was near the door of a space that should not need such protection. I spent yesterday writing about Matthew Paris's narration of the Hugh of Lincoln story, a narrative in which nineteen Jews are gruesomely murdered for a crime they clearly did not commit. I wondered what could cause a person to be possessed by such hatred of those whom they live among that they could convince themselves that their murder should be accomplished by their own hands. I wondered how you can look upon someone you do not know with such animosity that even their pain, their dying blood, will not move you to compassion.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS Karl sent me this moving story.

I've written about the museum in the past as well.

Jonathan Hsy said...

I'm still processing my emotional response to yesterday's events - in part because it is already changing how I perceive landmarks I see on a regular basis (the Mall, GW hospital). Strangely enough something that kept popping into my head yesterday was the uncharacteristic silence, the stunned "sobre" reaction, of Chaucer's pilgrims after hearing the Prioress's Tale (which ends by invoking the Hugh of Lincoln story). So much of that violent story simply defies logic, and the affective response of the pilgrims has always troubled me - do the pilgrims have silent reverence just for the "miracle" they have heard (wordlessly accepting its anti-Jewish sentiments), or do they actually contemplate what it means to be "we sinful folk unstable," complicit in unjust systems themselves? I do find it curious that this story and the account by Matthew of Paris both seek to delineate the limits of compassion among communities in close proximity. When Jews are paraded into London, Matthew opens up the possibility that some Christians *might* have shed tears at the sight, but the Italian merchants in the city - the socioeconomic "rivals" the Jews - do not. Like medieval writers we might try to identify functional explanations for what "causes" hatred, but perhaps hate - like love, or mercy - simply defies logic.

Eileen Joy said...

Jonathan: thanks so much for these comments here. I was just going to say I was stunned [although not surprised as these sorts of hate crimes happen practically every day] and had nothing else to say and then your comment came in, and I think you raise the most distressing and also the most apt questions. I really do not believe that the motivations for such crimes are ever 100% logical or even understandable, nor do I believe that, with the right "dose," so to speak, of psychological or sociological or historical or whathaveyou insight, that they can be fully explained, and therefore assuaged [as a trauma]. Although, since I am at a seminar on the work of Leo Bersani this weekend, it strikes me how much of his work is very political in the sense of how much he has written about the destruction and hatred that ensues when the ego is formed as a defense against the world, always seen as an enemy, which, if we believe Freud, is pretty much how it goes. In Bersani's philosophy, communitarianism, then, is also a sort of evil [or can be], when lines are drawn too sharply between groups whose identities are not thinkable without those lines. But can we live in a world without communities? I assume this is somewhat at the heart of Jeffrey's current work on Jews and Christians, and I have glimpsed this concern in your work as well, and wonder what you think about that.

Marty said...

I was thirteen years old when the Church forgave me for the crucifixion. Somehow, I still don’t feel above suspicion. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ surely identifies me as a “person of interest.” (Am I made nervous when Caryl Churchill reminds us of the blood libel in Seven Jewish Children, you bet I am.) It would be nice to think of James von Brunn as a crazy old man, an aberration. He’s not. He is two millennia in the making—and there are lots more just like him out there. I keep returning to Jeffrey’s comment, “The marble floors were, in the wake of the shootings, streaked with blood.” That blood has been flowing a long time.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Jonathan, that silence is usually what the Jews are given, not the Christians -- who typically are portrayed as unable to stop discoursing about the event. I find it an incredibly moving moment in Chaucer and am inclined towards seeing it as stunned quiet rather than reverence. But who knows?

Eileen, I don't think we could have a world without communities, but I do believe that humans are always improvising communities that operate below an official level, extemporaneous communities of heteropraxy that challenge the orthdoxies which one is supposed to live.

I am going to post a little bit, Marty, from what I was writing when the shooting happened. You will see how it resonates with what you have just written.
Gavin Langmuir sums up the Hugh of Lincoln story well when he attempts to account for why Copin would have confessed to the killing:

Any confession had to accord in all essentials with the fantasy that had surrounded Hugh’s tomb with an odour of sanctity for over a month. Both John and Copin knew what that story was, so it is immaterial whether John elicited it by pointed questions or Copin proferred it. Indeed, Matthew Paris has Copin’s confession begin with the all-too-revealing statement: “What the Christians say is true.” Copin “confessed” to a Christian fantasy. (“The Knight's Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln”)

Nothing, it seems, is to be learned about medieval Jews here. They are made to ventriloquize the hateful stories that Christians have invented. They restage the Christian Bible’s Passion simply because they cannot dwell in modernity. The timeless story of Hugh becomes, in Langmuir’s judgment, “a strand in English literature and a support of irrational beliefs about Jews from 1255 to Auschwitz” (482). From Hugh to the Holocaust: Leidensgeschichte, an early story in an endless tale of woe, the portal to a "lachrymose view of Jewish history," Jammergeschichte (as Salo Baron called it).

Reflecting back upon the achievements of career in writing Jewish history that began in the deeply anti-Semitic world of early twentieth-century Vienna and upon a life that lived before, during and after the Holocaust, Salo Baron wrote in 1963:

I too am a child of this age. All of my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant ‘lachrymose conception of Jewish history’ – a term which I have been using for more than forty years – because I have felt that an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the total picture of the Jewish historic evolution and, at the same time, badly served a generation which had become impatient with the nightmare of endless persecutions and massacres.

So, in honor of Salo Baron, let us ask: what else does Matthew Paris’s story of little Hugh of Lincoln offer besides “persecutions and massacres”?

Is there any way out (I ask here, at ITM) from floors streaked with blood, "blood has been flowing a long time"?

That is the fundamental question of my Leeds paper -- and yet I have no cogent answer.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Is there any way out (I ask here, at ITM) from floors streaked with blood, "blood has been flowing a long time"?

Jeffrey, I think part of the answer to this is that we confront it, we call the hate what it is, and we revile it. And we persuade, at least those that can be persuaded. When I talk about how there is an inherent violence in certain types of 11th-c. (or 21st-c.) Christianity, I'm trying to call a spade a spade. This isn't to lump but to split. Or, to take a more recent example, the DHS security report did NOT say that all veterans were security threats but indeed some are. That's, excuse me, an f-ing important point that shouldn't be shouted down.

Marty said...


In response to your question,
Is there any way out (I ask here, at ITM) from floors streaked with blood, "blood has been flowing a long time," perhaps we should turn to that great American philosopher, Woody Allen:

Woody Allen: "Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Ya know? I read it in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, ya know, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to 'em."

Victor Truro: "There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times – devastating."

Allen: "Whoa, whoa. A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it."

Helen Hanft: "Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force."

Allen: "No, physical force is always better with Nazis."

Anne Gilbert said...

I feel hesitant to comment here,though I am as "conversant" with the period in question, as a non-scholar Starving Writer can be,I suppose. All I can say is, it really saddens me that, in some fundamental ways, many of us haven't learned much, from the time of Hugh of Lincoln, to this.
Anne Gilbert

Karl Steel said...

They are made to ventriloquize the hateful stories that Christians have invented.

This is VERY lateral, but, from Solomon Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century, Rev. Ed. New York: Herman P, 1966. Vol. 1, I think of item #116, Innocent IV July 5, 1247 to the Archbishops and Bishops of Germany, who says the Blood Libel charge is ridiculous because Jews, by their own Law, cannot touch a dead body during Passover (271); see also 118 to “all faithful Christians,” “nor shall anyone accuse them of using human blood in their religious rites, since in the Old Testament they are instructed not to use blood of any kind, let alone human blood” (275) “nec etiam aliquis eis obiciat, quod in ritu suo humano utantur sanguine, cum tamen in veteri testamento preceptum sit eis, ut de humano sanguine taceamus, quod quolibet sanguine non utantur” (274).

The danger here is fantasy. Innocent IV, at this moment anyhow, is being practical, empirical, against imagination, against, we might say, the freedom from empiricism that art gives us. The cautionary tale here, then, is that art and imagination--and surely von Brunn was in a deeply imaginative world--can hurt, and that claims for the liberatory possibilities of 'broader horizons' may need to run themselves aground, at least from time to time, on the problems of such tales.