My friend Shmuel and I were talking about the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last Wednesday. It was big news here in D.C. and around the country, as the man who allegedly committed the crime surely intended it to be. And my friend Shmuel, who is a rabbi and a local activist, said something about the glass doors to the Museum, which were marked by bullet holes where alleged gunman James W. Von Bruun made his entrance and killed a security guard before other guards returned fire and stopped him. "They have already replaced it," he said. "they shouldn't have." Which I had not thought of but which makes sense to me.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is exactly as it is described - a place of active purpose, of memory in the service of ensuring that history does not repeat itself. So it strikes me that leaving those bullet holes there, as disturbing as it would be to see them every day, would be fully in keeping with the mission to remind the world that the kind of sick hatred that led to the extermination of six million Jews and millions of others in the 1940's is part of a through line to the murder of Officer Stephen Johns last week as he stood between Van Brunn and the thousands of visitors inside the museum.
Can I Just Tell You, it seems to me that America is a place where we are so eager to live in the future that we are in perpetual danger of forgetting the past, even the very recent past. We congratulate ourselves on our refusal to live by the ancient hatreds that rule too many societies around the world. But then we act as if those views do not even exist, and create other problems and stoke other resentments by refusing to acknowledge the history that informs decisions and shapes behavior to this day.
Recently the Department of Homeland Security was forced to backtrack on an April report about the possibility of a resurgence in activity among right wing extremists, particularly those upset about the election of this country's first black president. The report suggested that, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, disaffected veterans with military training might be a recruiting target for right-wing extremists who are also capitalizing on other issues like the weak economy. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued an apology because a number of conservative commentators and Republicans politicians decided this was offensive to contemplate. But what if it happens to be true? Similarly, what about the 23 year old convert to Islam who murdered a soldier at an Army recruiting station in broad daylight earlier this month and gravely wounded another because he said, he was angry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If a similar report were to examine the question of whether Islamic extremists are in search of alienated, unstable individuals like this man to be used as agents in this country I am sure a similar outcry would ensue. But what if that's also true?
It seems to me that we can't address the obvious if we are afraid to ask the obvious questions, ones that are disturbing and make us uncomfortable. This is not a warrant to persecute people because of their beliefs, however offensive we may find them, nor is it to suggest the authorities should be given license to abuse people's civil rights in the name of security. But it is to say that, like those bullet holes at the door, sometimes disturbing questions must be faced if we are to serve the higher purpose of ensuring the past does not repeat itself, like an old newsreel with different characters, telling the same tragic story over and over again.