Bangor native and former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said Friday that the violent attack and killing of a guard earlier this week at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington demonstrates that ignorance and racism persist in this country, even as society becomes generally more accepting and welcoming of diversity.
In a telephone interview, Cohen said the museum was packed with schoolchildren on Wednesday.
“It was dramatic to see all these young kids coming into the museum,” he said. “They were white, black, Latino, Asian — all different races and ethnicities touring the museum together. Children love life, and they appear to love each other.”
In that affirmative setting, he said, it was especially horrific to witness the act of violence and hatred committed by gunman James von Brunn, the white supremacist who police say opened fire with a rifle in the lobby of the museum, fatally wounding a security guard before being shot himself by others on the security staff.
Von Brunn, who was shot in the face by the other guards, remained in critical condition Friday, The Associated Press reported.
Cohen had come to the museum Wednesday morning to oversee technical preparations for the premiere performance that night of a play written and directed by his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen. The play, “Anne and Emmett,” takes the form of a dialog between Holocaust chronicler and victim Anne Frank and Emmett Till, a black teenager killed in a racially motivated attack in Mississippi in 1955.
The special staging was timed to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Anne Frank’s birthday, as well as the 42nd anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the legality of interracial marriage.
William Cohen is Jewish; his wife is black.
About 400 invited guests had been expected to attend the Wednesday evening performance, including Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Adviser James Jones, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and other dignitaries, Cohen said. Actor Morgan Freeman would narrate the production.
Taking an afternoon break from the backstage preparations, Cohen had placed a call to his wife, positioning himself next to a window at the front of the museum in order to get a better telephone signal.
“I saw a vehicle parked in the middle of the street,” Cohen said. The car was parked outside the area reserved for VIPs, he noted, and Cohen saw an older man walking away from the vehicle toward the museum entrance.
Focused on his call, Cohen didn’t pay much attention. Moments later, von Brunn entered the lobby and opened fire.
“We heard multiple shots fired,” Cohen said. “We ducked down to get as close to the floor as we could, and then we ran up the stairs to the second floor. We didn’t know if there was more than one shooter, or bombs in the building, or if someone would be coming up the stairs to keep shooting.”
On the second floor, “people had heard the shots and the shouting and crying. They were starting to panic,” he said. But within moments, von Brunn had been shot and critically wounded.
“The security guards got about 2,000 people evacuated from the building,” Cohen said. “Within 10 minutes, at the most, they had brought in dogs and a SWAT team.”
Security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, who was black, died of his gunshot wound.
“He opened the door for the gunman,” Cohen said. “He paid for that generosity with a bullet in the chest.”
Cohen said the world is generally friendlier now to ethnic and racial diversity than ever before, but some individuals and groups still promote hatred and bigotry.
“There are a lot of haters out there in the world, spewing their message over the airwaves and the Internet,” Cohen said. “They call themselves white supremacists, but there is nothing supreme about them. We should call them what they are. They are haters, and they hate the good that civilized people have accomplished.
“We all have an obligation to shine the light of scrutiny on what they are saying and doing,” he said.
Cohen doubts that von Brunn’s attack was timed to coincide with the premiere of “Anne and Emmett.” Given the extensive and illustrious guest list for the event, he said, planners of any organized attack “would have wanted and caused a lot more mayhem.”
“I think this fellow [von Brunn] just wanted to die and decided to kill someone else in the process,” he said.
The museum was closed for the rest of the day on Wednesday and, in tribute to Johns, all day Thursday as well. It reopened on Friday, but partly due to the complication of setting up the special performance and partly in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, which began at sundown Friday, “Anne and Emmett” was not staged at the museum Friday evening.
A special performance will instead be rescheduled for another time at the museum.
Cohen said Friday that his wife’s play would open that night in a small theater at George Washington University. He said a capacity crowd was expected. The show will be performed in California, New York and other locations in the future.
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