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Holocaust Museum Reopens Following Fatal Shooting

June 12, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Kwame Holman reports on the National Holocaust Museum's reopening following Wednesday's fatal shooting of a security guard by white supremacist James W. von Brunn and provides an update on what authorities have learned about the shooter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Holocaust
Memorial Museum
in Washington, D.C., was open for visitors today. And they
came, undeterred by the tragic shooting that happened there Wednesday.
“NewsHour” correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: A makeshift memorial to slain security officer
Stephen Johns grew today a short distance from the spot where he was gunned
down Wednesday. Gone from Johns’ post at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was
the crime scene tape, the emergency vehicles, and the bullet-marked front
doors. New doors — so new, the museum’s name is not yet affixed — admitted
visitors once again today. The building was closed yesterday to honor the
39-year old Johns, who was allegedly shot and killed by James von Brunn, an
88-year-old self- proclaimed white supremacist and anti-Semite. Museum-goer
John Brown said the shooting was no reason not to come.

JOHN BROWN, Holocaust Memorial Museum visitor: Well, it
certainly gives you pause, but I think, you know, we — we believe life goes
on, and — and if you’re — that we should support what is going on here at
this museum by continuing to — to come and pay honor to what it was built for.

KWAME HOLMAN: Von Brunn remains in critical condition at a Washington hospital with
a head wound. He was shot by museum guards just inside the entrance. He has
been charged by federal authorities with murder.

Supporting the museum

SARA BLOOMFIELD, director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: Wedo take security very seriously. We have a very high profile.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sara Bloomfield, the museum's director, saidthe institution had never been threatened in the 16 years since it opened. Ithas among the tightest security of any of the capital's myriad museums.

SARA BLOOMFIELD: We pay attention to everything --everything.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bloomfieldwas heartened by the turnout at the museum today. Do you think some have the --the sense of wanting to show support for the museum?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Yes, I do sense that, that people reallywant to do it out of an act of defiance or solidarity. And I think the Americanpublic realizes, in incidents like this, if you allow the haters to win, wehave really lost everything.

KWAME HOLMAN: Von Brunn was known to post incendiarycomments on the Internet that focused especially on Jews and African-Americans.People near his home outside Annapolis, Maryland, said they had long beenwary of von Brunn. Laura Era owns an art gallery in Easton, Maryland

LAURA ERA, Marylandart gallery owner: You would call him maybe a ticking time bomb. I definitelythought he was capable of doing something like this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Authorities say quick action by the museum'ssecurity guards saved lives here. But, as the investigation continues into whatdrove the shooter, there are indications that a combination of hatred, rage andhard times might have been at work.

KEN PIERNICK, former FBI agent: I am concerned that thereare more lunatics like von Brunn who would act on their baser emotions. Thatalways concerned me. And it should concern everybody. The fact that we have anAfrican-American president now, in some people's minds, such as the mind of vonBrunn, might be considered a triggering event.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ken Piernick served in the FBI for 22 years incounterterrorism and counterintelligence capacities. He says, extremists suchas von Brunn often are outliers, even within their own extremist communities.

KEN PIERNICK: What I learned as I worked on most domesticterrorism cases, particularly among the militias and all these differentmovements, is, innately, most of them really abhorred violence. In fact, it wasso apparent, that they would report to us, the FBI, and other law enforcementthe most crazy of their members, because they didn't want to be associated withthat sort of stuff.

Focusing on extremists

KWAME HOLMAN: Though von Brunn was not under activesurveillance, the Department of Homeland Security had extremists like him inmind when it released a report earlier this year that focused on a possibleresurgence of violent right-wing extremism because of the political situationand poor economy. Conservatives claimed the report equated them with terroristsand demanded DHS retract it. The department promised to modify some of thedocument's language. But Piernick says, the report only reiterated much of whatauthorities knew and investigated during the 1990s, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing.Piernick says, there's a connection between that era and the recent murder ofabortion provider Dr. George Tiller, as well as this week's shooting.

KEN PIERNICK: In times of economic woe, they seem to be morepronounced. So, people, you know, irrational people, begin to -- to react indifferent ways. In those days, it was the militia movement. And nowadays, I amnot seeing so much militia movement in the public arena, but we do haveperiodic spikes of these types of fellows that did this thing at the Holocaustand the thing with the abortion doctor.

KWAME HOLMAN: Von Brunn's racist writings have authoritiesconsidering hate crimes charges, as well as murder. He was reported to bestruggling for money after his Social Security benefits were cut.