Breaking: More domestic terrorism

Awful news today: A man opened fire in the Holocaust Museum in DC — reportedly killing a museum guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns.The suspect is 88-year-old James von Brunn, a white supremacist and anti-semite who has said some truly vile things.

As Dana Goldstein writes,

A World War II veteran and resident of Maryland, Von Brunn is the author of a pamphlet
entitled “Kill the Best Gentiles: A new, hard-hitting exposé of the JEW
CONSPIRACY to destroy the White gene-pool.” He is a Holocaust denier
who has written that “Hitler’s worse mistake” was that “he didn’t gas the Jews.”

She also notes that, like Dr. Tiller’s murder, this act constitutes domestic terrorism.

I can’t really find the words to say much else about this right now. How awful. My thoughts are with Johns’ family.

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  1. Legba Carrefour
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m from DC and this is absolutely horrible and frightening, particularly given that this is a majority black city, and possibly indicative of a rising trend of right-wing motivated violence, but I am really uncomfortable with this being labeled terrorism.
    Terrorism is a completely useless concept, doesn’t actually grapple with systemic processes or the real trauma surrounding such events, and is part of a political game in which we contest what is terrorism. When you use the word you endorse the same logic that allowed the right wing to call anti-war demonstrations outside of a recruiting station in DC “terrorism” and the recent G20 and then IMF/World Bank protests “terrorism”.
    That word needs to be made a relic of the previous administration. Calling this terrorism doesn’t validate how awful and horrible it is or do anything to help–it just perpetuates an entire language that exists to justify state monopoly of violence.

  2. Ann
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that’s true. I actually find the term terrorism to be useful as a way of describing crimes that are committed with the intended effect of intimidating a certain group of people. In Scott Roeder’s case, abortion providers and pro-choicers. In this case, Jewish people.
    I also see terrorist acts as violent acts. Which is what separates peaceful protests against the war or against the G20/IMF or, heck, against abortion from violent acts specifically designed to intimidate.

  3. Legba Carrefour
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I should mention that I was at one point threatened with a terrorism charge in 2002, shortly after the War on Terror began, in connection with a feminist group that put up anti-rape graffiti on a college campus. I eventually got a two month jail sentence on property destruction charges. So it’s a personal huge problem with me when I see people on the left using the word.
    The language of terrorism is specifically designed to allow the state to maintain its own violence. We use the word to talk about single-incident, spectacular (not in the sense of awesome, but in the sense of creating a spectacle) events carried out by non-state actors, and we’re allowed to argue about the incident-by-incident use of the word, but we’re strictly verboten from using it to talk about real, systemic violence.
    When the government does it, it’s “shock and awe” and great television.
    We don’t need to use the same language we use to justify war to make people take reactionary violence seriously.

  4. Ann
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I take your point about buying into the state’s language of violence. I do. But I also still, personally, find terrorism to be a useful way of thinking about what separates some acts from other acts of violence that are more random. Maybe the term I’m really looking for in this case is “hate crime.”
    But, to make a long response very short, thanks for checking my language. I wrote the post hastily, and will have to do some more thinking on the word terrorism and what it really means — and who it really benefits.

  5. Arvilla
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the solution is to use the term terrorism to describe state-sponsored violence which has the intention of pushing a political agenda through violence or the threat of violence, as well as such acts performed by private actors.
    It both distinguishes between two types of violence, and holds the state as accountable for acts of violence as a private actor is.

  6. Legba Carrefour
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, “reactionary violence” or “hate crime” is a lot better. I super duper appreciate that you’re willing to think about the issue.
    There was an action in Lansing where the radical queer group Bash Back! had one group of people dress in masks and all black start a ruckus outside a far right-wing and notoriously homophobic megachurch, distracting security, and allowing people planted inside the church to start disrupting services by making out and throwing condoms in the air. People are trying to label *that* terrorism and subpoenas are going around right now.
    There’s also the RNC8 case where members of the RNC Welcoming Committee that helped provide some logistics for the anti-RNC demonstrations were initially charged with terrorism under the Minnesota PATRIOT Act.
    When it comes to actual criminal prosecution, the use of terrorism is overwhelming directed at people on the left who are engaging in non-violent acts.

  7. Hershele Ostropoler
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Do these sorts of attacks only happen under presidents with a D after their names? The only attack like this in the U.S. I can think of in the period 2001-2008 is the church shooting in Tennessee last year, versus Oklahoma City, Matthew Shepard, the Gibson and Chestnut murders in 1998, and of course Dr. Tiller and now this during Democratic administrations.
    I wonder if these people think (on whatever basis, real or imagined) that Republicans are “their people,” and only when Democrats are in charge do they need to act out and kill those they perceive as threats.
    I’m not blaming either party for this sort of incident or trying to say anything as simplistic as “Democratic opposition is more peaceable than Republican opposition,” which is unfair.

  8. LalaReina
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I do see it as an act of domestic terror and I would use it in the prosecution.

  9. Ruby
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I think “terrorist” is a word of convenience. It has a shifting definition. Words like “terrorist” or “freedom” or “American values” are manipulated to evoke powerful emotional responses, in this case fear, and hopefully make people more likely to go along with whatever the state says. And this ensures (like another poster pointed out) that the state gets to continue carrying out its own systemic violence without question.
    During the election, when everyone was making a big freakin’ deal out of Obama’s connection to Bill Ayers, I remember thinking, “Bill Ayers is a terrorist for damaging government property, but John McCain is an American Hero for killing hundreds of innocent people in his 23 bombing missions over Vietnamese civilian villages. What’s up with that logic?”
    So, in conclusion, I’m also kind of against the term “terrorist”, although in this case, it’s really hard not to want to use it. I think “hate crime” might work better.

  10. kaje
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    They feel marginalized, so they act out in desperation.

  11. libdevil
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Wait, what? “Justify state monopoly of violence?” I’d rather we didn’t need any at all, but I’d vastly prefer that the state exercise as much monopoly power over it as possible, really. That’s kinda the whole point – we grant the government a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in exchange for them using it to keep our random nutbag neighbors from stealing our shit, raping us, killing us, and so forth.

  12. MLE
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I find it incredibly problematic that this discussion of the issues with the word “terror(ism, ist)” is coming up in this instance of anti-semetic terrorism but did not in the wake of Dr. Tillers Murder being labeled terrorism.

  13. idiolect
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Methinks you and Legba (heh) might be coming from very different points of view, ideologically speaking — I doubt that L. thinks that “exchange” you mention is legitimate, for instance. But the details of that are sort of beside the point for now — I just wanted to point out that I doubt L. is encouraging a “brutish and short” kind of life by advocating against a state’s “monopoly on violence.”

  14. ghostorchid
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m with you; I cringe when people use the word “terrorism”. Even if we come up with a tidy definition for it, I feel like it’s still too politically loaded to be used innocently. Really, how often and easily did we employ the word “terrorist” pre-9/11? Not very, I suspect. It comes with some valid ideas about intimidation and violent thuggery, but it also comes with shock effect and emotional string-pulling, and that’s what I don’t like. It’s manipulative to use that word, even if you don’t intend to manipulate.

  15. Keliz
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    I wholeheartedly agree with Legba Carrefour’s analysis of the word terrorism. I suggest Talal Asad’s work “On Suicide Bombing” as an enlightening read on how impossible it is to intellectually construct definitions where “terrorism” and state-sponsered violence are distinct forces. (The book does not defend or justify terrorism, but rather points out the problematic relationship between liberalism of the modern state and violence meant to intimidate).
    I understand where Ann is coming from in her use, but I have to say that personally I think that terrorism has become too much of a political tool to redeem. Hate crime seems more appropriate, and still manages to convey that this is an ugly crime perpetrated against a group of people rather than individuals.

  16. RoseRose
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    As someone who lived in Israel over 10 years ago (so before 9/11), this is EXACTLY what terrorism is, by pre-9/11 definitions. It’s an act targeting a group designed to cause terror to show a particular message. Like MLE, I find the discussion problematic, because this has the same premise as Tiller’s murder- a fanatic killing for a cause.
    I am biased, because as a Jew and a woman, terrorism affected my Jewish identity years before my identity as a woman. This is the kind of thing that, as a Jew, creates terror.

  17. fatima
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    agreed!! where is the outrage???

  18. attentat
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    That probably has to do with Legba commenting on the event that happened in L’s city.

  19. WIDave
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    “… possibly indicative of a rising trend of right-wing motivated violence …”
    “… I wonder if these people think (on whatever basis, real or imagined) that Republicans are “their people,” …”
    No. This is indicative of nothing. This murdering loon was not a Republican. Von Brunn was an equal-opportunity hater that bashed both Jewish and Christians. He wrote about his hatred of President W. Bush, H.W. Bush and other “neo-conservatives” online.
    He was against everyone that disagreed with him.

  20. ghostorchid
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    I, for one, feel cringy whenever someone uses the phrase “terrorist” – not because I think a particular event doesn’t “count” as terrorism, but because I don’t think the impact and role of that word is useful. I don’t like to see it applied to Tiller’s murder either.
    I’m also Jewish.

  21. MLE
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    There are a few people sharing similar sentiment. Presumably not all live in DC, and presumably some of them felt the same way 2 weeks ago. No one challenged the use of the word “terrorism” with Tiller (and yes, I also consider his killing terrorism), many people agreed and called it that. Several people are disagreeing with the word now, and I think that that is, at the very least, interesting, and yes, problematic.

  22. attentat
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    Sometimes, all it takes is one person voicing an opinion to spur others to vocalize their agreement.

  23. Ruby
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    Just to clarify, I had the same objection to the use of the word “terrorist” in the case of George Tiller. I considered mentioning it on the comment thread, but was reluctant to do so. The posters were all very impassioned and emotions were understandably running high, so I was afraid I might invite an attack if I said something.
    Both acts are equally vile and incredibly heart-breaking. They are hate crimes through and through.

  24. zp27
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Exactly. And this economy doesn’t help: it things are bad, people look for someone to blame. Joan Walsh summarized a few of the main factors that drive this lunatic fringe in that “Rise of right wing extremist” DHS Report:
    “They include a prolonged economic downturn, the demonization of immigrants, the election of the first black president, fears about losing the right to own guns, a banking crisis inciting age-old paranoia about “Jewish cabals” and the return of many veterans to the States suffering from PTSD and other conditions while getting insufficient care.”
    I mean, shoot-Bernie Maddoff? A horrible person who happens to be Jewish? Sonia Sotomayor, who stands for everything some people hate? An culture that allows abortions that they believe to be murders? I’m glad in one way that there haven’t been MORE shootings.
    So, I’m not surprised. I’m very sad. Really sad. I wish this guy had been detained for years instead of random people found in war zones. I think the focus of this country is all f-ed up. And I don’t think domestic terrorism is a bad word for it at all.

  25. zp27
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  26. that girl
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    ‘Right-wing’ and ‘Republican’ are not the same thing, though. This guy was a neo-Nazi, by definition ‘right wing.’ While he may have hated certain Republicans, it’s because they were not extreme enough for him. I think ‘right-wing motivated violence’ refers to the hate speech that is abundant on conservative media.
    This guy was not a ‘loon.’ He knew exactly what he was doing. That’s the tragedy.

  27. Ann
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    The tone of the conversation in comments is often set by the first few commenters, and because in this case that was an exchange between me and Legba about the appropriateness of the term “terrorism,” I think that opened the door for other folks to think about (or share their feelings about) the use of the word. This same conversation would have been welcome and useful, I believe, on the Tiller threads.

  28. llevinso
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    In 27 comments I’ve read next to nothing about anti-semitism or sadness at the loss of life in this attack. It’s almost all about the use of the word terrorism in the OP! Really?
    I, for one, want to say that my heart goes out to Stephen Tyrone Johns’ family. And, as a Jewish person, I am angry and saddened and most of all scared by this attack. A new Holocaust Museum recently opened by my house (in Skokie, IL) a few months ago and they are now talking of increasing security because of this incident.

  29. MLE
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    And I understand the first comments being important, but I’m not convinced. The discussion did happen in this thread. Not one of the people saying “And I felt the use of the word ‘terrorism’ to refer to George Tiller’s murder was innapropriate, too” felt comfortable saying so on that thread?
    I disagree with Legba on the usage of the word, but it is definitely a really interesting conversation. I just think that it spontaneously occurred on this thread and not the other is problematic.

  30. MLE
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    You’re right. That’s sort of what I was alluding to in my comments, but as I reread them, I realize how completely unclear that is. My issue with the discussion of the word terrorism is/was, well- This attack makes me scared as a Jew. Of course that’s terrorism.
    And because I’m realizing I haven’t said so on this thread: It is incredibly tragic that Stephen Tyrone Johns died as a result of this attack.

  31. urth
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink
    Rachel Maddow interview with a constitutional law professor on June 1st.
    I’m glad to see this discussion happening. It is reinforcing my own ideas about the overuse of the word “terrorism”. i think hate crime is very appropriate.

    Posted June 11, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Feministing is a forum for political discussion, so I don’t think topic of the connotation of the word ‘terrorism’ is inappropriate. And I certainly don’t think anyone here is not horribly saddened by this tragic event on a personal level as well, myself included.
    Since 9/11, we’ve seen and heard ‘terrorists’ as a popular term often used to describe people from the Middle East, no matter what their political leanings or history of violence. I welcome the reappropriation of the term to mean anyone who uses violence to terrorize a particular group of people, fueled by hatred. It’s a sad reminder to those who only worry about the ‘crazy foreigners who hate Americans’ that there are Americans who hate as well and that’s just as scary.

  33. QuestionEverything
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    The conversation surrounding the word “terrorist” is incredibly important right now. As the person who originally started this thread noted, she was threatened with a terrorism charge for being connected to a group that engaged in anti-rape graffiti. While I find Dr. Tiller’s murder heartbreaking, and this most recent shooting deplorable, I can’t bring myself to define this as “domestic terrorism.” It’s all fine and good when the people we advocate against are the ones committing the crimes that are considered “terrorism.” But it’s a whole different story when the shoe is on the other foot. One of my frustrations is that feminists and progressives often times are willing to compromise our basic rights in the name of progress. This is a perfect example of that, and I believe it’s dangerous. Sorry for the rant! It’s my first time posting!

  34. ghostorchid
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t comment about the “terrorist” label not because I think terrorizing Jews is less “terrifying” than terrorizing abortion providers (I mean…I am Jewish) but because I didn’t comment in any of the Tiller threads. Additionally, I think this second of the label is more interesting because it establishes a pattern of using “terrorist”.

  35. llevinso
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I’m not saying that the conversation about the word terrorism isn’t important. I agree that discussions about how we use words are extremely important. But why now on this thread? Why not, as MLE mentioned, on the Dr. Tiller thread? It’s taken over the entire comment thread and it’s no longer about this horrible act of anti-semitism and violence. Now it’s about the word terrorism. I think Legba’s concerns are very interesting and I’d love to hear more about them, in a community posting.

  36. SaraLaffs
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m hardly an expert, but it seems pretty obvious that this shooting is the latest in a series of hate crimes against non-WASPs going back to the dismantling of slavery after the Civil War. White supremicists in the late 1800s had the KKK; today they’ve got the neo-Nazis and thinly-veiled hate speech of ultra-right wing talk radio and TV. (I would highly recommend Morris Dees’ wonderful book “The Gathering Storm,” in which he re-caps the far-right identity and militia movements from the late 1960′s through 90s.) This shooter isn’t some lone nut. He’s part of a long tradition of (mostly) white men pissed off that they don’t have the privilege they were promised, who are attracted to a philosophy that tells them they didn’t do anything wrong, it’s all the fault of the people of color/gays/feminists/etc.
    (This comment is strongly worried and I apologize in advance if I caused anyone offense… but it really angers me that the media is even questioning whether this was act of terrorism [or whatever you wish to call it] against Jews.)

  37. ghostorchid
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    The angle I’m curious about is how Johns was shot. Was he specifically targeted or was his murderer just firing around wildly? I mean, he was a man of color (I don’t know what faith he was) and he was killed by a white supremacist. To me, there’s also something explicitly racial happening here. I wish there were more details.
    At any rate, I hope the Jewish community in the area is supporting and taking care of his loved ones, and I hope they are all coping with this attack as well as can be expected.

  38. llevinso
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    What it sounds like (from the reports I’ve read) is that von Brunn came in and just opened fire. I don’t think he was necessarily targeting any specific person in the museum. Maybe Johns was the closest guard to him? I’m really not sure. Although the hatred that I’ve read from von Brunn, it wouldn’t surprise if he shot at Johns first because he was black.

  39. quantummechanik
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Antisemitism is sort of a different breed of hatred than racism, although it can have some racial components to it. This sort of antisemitism is a hodgepodge of a few of the “Old” types–It involves conspiracy theories regarding Jewish world domination (See The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for more), which often goes hand in hand with holocaust denial, and both are caused by nationalistic antisemitism (Jews have certain characteristics: Greed, power-mad, evil, etc.)

  40. quantummechanik
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    There’s not always a link between racism and antisemitism.
    From the reports, it seems like he just entered the building and started firing. The entrance to the museum was pretty crowded. He could have just been targeting security guards.

  41. llevinso
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Okay a new story just came out. Apparently Johns opened the door to help von Brunn to come inside the museum (since he was an elderly looking man) and then von Brunn just shot him right away.
    Just horrible.

  42. llevinso
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t saying there was always a link between racism and anti-semitism. But did you read the writings of von Brunn? He really seems to have a problem with everyone, just Jews especially.

  43. ghostorchid
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    God, what an effing nightmare. Thanks for finding this out, llevinso.

  44. Legba Carrefour
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Like someone else suggested, I commented on here because it happened in my city and I was already uneasy with the use of the word terrorism around the Tiller murder. It’s also that this makes the second time in a month that people on the Left are using the word “terrorism”, which, like ghostorchid said, makes for a pattern now and made me concerned.
    there are some other issues involved but i need to be mindful of how much space i’m taking.

  45. SaraLaffs
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    You’re right about that. But based on Von Brunn’s apparent writings, he was both an anti-Semite and a racist.

  46. quantummechanik
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I think people feel more comfortable discussing what could be termed as “intellectual” aspects of the event and the events after it–like the label terrorism of it–when it’s an antisemitic issue as compared to an abortion-related issue because of where this is–A feminist site. An abortion doctor dies, people on a feminist site will respond pretty firmly. It’s a sensitive issue, and people will take clear sides. This, it seems, is a less sensitive issue for people on here. People didn’t feel comfortable arguing the label of THAT murder, but they feel comfortable arguing this one. Which is fine, I suppose, because that issue is probably more relevant in a personal way to more people on here.
    I don’t expect people responding to this to react as a Jew would react, to be as emotional as a Jew would be emotional. That’s not a fair request. I can understand that. It’s just odd to read–a reminder that we all respond to things based on our views, not based on the…objectiveness of the situation, I suppose.

  47. Carrie
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I don’t expect people responding to this to react as a Jew would react, to be as emotional as a Jew would be emotional.
    You make it sound as if there are no Feministing readers that are Jewish.
    Also, by this logic, would you say that a straight person wouldn’t be horrified by the murder of a gay person? Or a white person wouldn’t be horrified by the murder of a person of color? Why should only Jewish people react emotionally in this situation?

  48. quantummechanik
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    “Also, by this logic, would you say that a straight person wouldn’t be horrified by the murder of a gay person? Or a white person wouldn’t be horrified by the murder of a person of color? Why should only Jewish people react emotionally in this situation?”
    I wouldn’t say they wouldn’t be horrified, but they certainly wouldn’t react in the same way, with the same level of horror or with the same fear. Members of a group targeted by a hate crime will have a different reaction than a member of another group that wasn’t targeted.

  49. QuestionEverything
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you-it is curious that the conversation was brought up in this thread. Perhaps it is because it’s twice now that the word has been used to describe an act of violence. I do not know the answer, but I agree that it could use a space outside of this one to be discussed. I have some personal (political) views on the use of the word, in both contexts, that make the use of the word uncomfortable for me, but this isn’t the right forum for that. Perhaps I will write a community post on it!

  50. Ruby
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Two months ago, the Department of Homeland Security warned that right-wing extremism posed the most likely threat of domestic terrorism. After Obama was elected, white supremacists expressed that they were pleased with the outcome of the election. Having a black man as president has proven to be a “driving force for right-wing extremist recruitment and radicalization.”
    The Department was criticized heavily for this assertion, especially by Republicans, who were outraged at the suggestion. The Department issued an apology.
    If this disgusting, vile, hideous crime had been committed by a person of Middle-Eastern descent, you can imagine how different the coverage would be. The word “TERRORIST” would be plastered in bold letters all over the television, people would be in a panic, etc. etc.
    THIS is why I hate the word “terrorist”. That word was distorted and manipulated by the previous administration; government officials use the word “terrorist” to exploit the fears of the people and to incite the very worst kind of racism–the kind that knows no logic.
    The reaction to the Department of Homeland Security’s warning proves this–utter outrage at the idea that there could possibly be an “American” terrorist, and a white one at that. It is a word designed to make us afraid, afraid to the point where we put all faith into those in power, and cease to question government-sanctioned violence.
    Don’t get me wrong–this man, Von Brunn, is less than human and what happened at the Holocaust Museum makes my heart and soul ache–because an innocent, and by all accounts heroic man perished, but also because it is a poignant illustration of the sheer amount and profundity of hatred in this world and country. It is truly despicable, and deeply, deeply sad.

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