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The Other Symbolism

A few days ago I mentioned the Washington Holocaust Museum in a post in which I raised the two different Holocaust narratives that Jews carried in their hearts. According to one, the Holocaust teaches us to reject violence, embrace tolerance, and learn to get along. According to the other, the Jewish people learned the absolute necessity of defense — including a sovereign state and an army — in order to survive in the real world. How do we react now, to a tragedy that cries out to be read in its own symbolic context?

The alleged attacker, Von Brunn, was a vicious anti-Semite who was not looking to kill a security guard. He was looking to kill Jews. In this he failed, and he failed only because of the heroic acts of Stephen Tyrone Johns, who sacrificed his life, and of the other guards who opened fire and took him out.

The event is tragic in anyone’s eyes, but only ironic according to the first Holocaust narrative. The Washington Post’s editorial this morning talks about how the museum is ” a place where visitors go to confront hatred, learn the danger of prejudice and promote human dignity… Such a reminder was delivered yesterday, in a most unexpected place.” The editors continue:

Several Holocaust visitors described the incident as “unbelievable” because it occurred in a place that, by memorializing the near-extinction of a people, is designed to prevent violence. One woman, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said the shooting demonstrates that hatred and prejudice are never-ending. Given the vile beliefs that news accounts have ascribed to the suspect, that view is understandable. But the hope that was enshrined in the Holocaust Museum when it opened in 1993 is that exposing the horrors of hate and prejudice will move people to tolerance.

From the perspective of the other narrative, however, the tragic events yesterday were anything but ironic. Indeed, they seem to prove the very lesson its proponents have been trying to teach us. The fact is that neither Johns nor his compatriots represent a rejection of violence. They represent the enlistment of force to protecting liberty — including the liberty of Jews to commemorate their past and celebrate their present. What is horribly clear today is that if not for their swift, heroic, and effective actions — indeed, were it not for the wisdom of whoever insisted on having well-trained armed guards protecting the place — we all know how much worse yesterday’s attack would have turned out.


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