Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cowardly racist reaches end of diving board

By DeWayne Wickham

Life must have become unbearable for James von Brunn.It had to be tough for this longtime anti-Semite and white supremacist to stomach the changes this nation has undergone in recent months. The election last year of America's first black president must have rubbed von Brunn raw. And President Barack Obama's visit this month to a former Nazi concentration camp was probably more than von Brunn could take.

After years of claiming the Holocaust was a hoax and saying blacks were "incapable of inventing even the wheel," all this was apparently more than von Brunn could take. Police say he rushed into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday armed with a rifle and critically wounded a black security guard, who later died. Other guards returned fire, critically wounding von Brunn.

After years of spewing his venomous rage in books and on his Web site, the 88-year-old von Brunn apparently decided to "go out with his boots on," as his ex-wife told the New York Daily News he had said he would do.

Back in 1981, von Brunn was arrested for storming the offices of the Federal Reserve Board and trying to make a "citizen's arrest" of its members. He blamed them for high interest rates at the time.

He served time in prison for that offense. But for the most part, von Brunn was more talk than action -- until he entered the Holocaust Museum with a rifle.

If he survives, von Brunn faces prosecution by a Justice Department headed by the first black attorney general. And he likely would be tried in the District of Columbia, where jury pools are largely black.

That would be poetic justice.His action at the Holocaust Museum is a chilling reminder that members of the rear guard of America's racist past are, as von Brunn once said of himself, "getting near the end of the diving board."

They no longer have the public backing of a White Citizens Council to cloak their bigotry. The brazen political support they once got from elected officials -- especially governors and senators from the old South -- has been replaced by a far more tolerant brand of politics in the new South.

But racism isn't dead. Far from it.On its Hatewatch Web site, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists dozens of acts of racial and religious violence and intolerance that have occurred since the beginning of this year. Last month, The Boston Globe reported that Obama's election spurred "a wave of hate group violence," including the killing of five law enforcement officers.

There's emerging evidence that right-wing hate groups and radical ideas are spreading across the United States, Mark Potok, who runs the center's Intelligence Project, wrote in a recent online editorial.

It may not have been coincidence that von Brunn, who had warned of the coming demise of the white race, attacked the Holocaust Museum when he did.Young cast members with the play "Anne & Emmett," scheduled to premiere in the museum's theater that night, were rehearsing. The one-act play is an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank, a 15-year-old Jewish girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy killed by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.

The play is the work of Janet Langhart Cohen, a black journalist married to former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is white.Von Brunn may or may not have known about Langhart Cohen and her play. He was certainly aware of the racial barriers this country has broken recently, and of the Holocaust Museum's role in exposing the consequences of religious intolerance.

In the end, it was more than this aging bigot could stand.

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