Repudiating Evil in Our Midst
by Hasan Zillur Rahim
Who can predict when and where a racist will strike? James von Brunn, 88, a bona fide supremacist, opened fire in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, killing a 39 year old security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns. Most racists nurse their hate in silence or organize with fellow-haters to vent but are careful to keep a lid on their prejudice in public. But that isn’t the case with people like Brunn. The scary thing is that the number of Brunns is on the rise in the world. More and more racists are coming out of the closet, it seems.
Equally disturbing is the increasing number of people who feel hardly any moral revulsion toward violence, racist or otherwise. For them, these are mere blips on the 24-hour news cycle, no more cause for alarm than, say, the drop in stock prices or the rise in unemployment.
But it is also clear that right-wing radicals have gone off the deep end since Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. Rush Limbaugh claims that Obama is more dangerous to the security of the United States than al-Qaida. Frank Gaffney compares the president to Hitler: “The man now happy to have his Islamic-rooted middle name featured prominently has engaged in the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain over Czechoslovakia at Munich.”
Such talk resonates with extremists burning with hatred for Jews, Blacks, Muslims and other minority groups. It is not far-fetched to draw a cause-and-effect relationship between demonization and destruction.
For the record, though, only last week Barack Obama condemned anti-Semitism in the strongest terms to the entire Arab world from Cairo University.
When tragedies such as the one in the Holocaust Museum occur, we try to come to grips with what really goes on inside the minds of people like James von Brunn. For me, the most frightening insight comes from a short story by Eudora Welty called “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Written in response to the June 12, 1963, assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers only a few miles from where Welty lived, the author explored the mindset of a bigot who would commit such a murder. The clipped sentences send a chill down my spine every time I read it:
“As soon as I heard wheels, I knowed who was coming. That was him and bound to be him. It was the right nigger heading in a new white car up his driveway towards his garage with the light shining, but stopping before he got there, maybe not to wake ‘em. That was him. I knowed it when he cut off the car lights and put his foot out and I knowed him standing dark against the light. I knowed him then like I know me now. I knowed him even by his still, listening back.
Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his picture, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will. As long as there was no question in my mind.
He had to be the one. He stood right still and waited against the light, his back was fixed, fixed on me like a preacher’s eyeballs when he’s yelling “Are you saved?” He’s the one.
I’d already brought up my rifle, I’d already taken my sights. And I’d already got him, because it was too late then for him or me to turn by one hair.
Something darker than him, like the wings of a bird, spread on his back and pulled him down. He climbed up once, like a man under bad claws, and like just blood could weigh a ton he walked with it on his back to better light. Didn’t get no further than his door. And fell to stay.”
We are morally complicit in the evil of racism if we are insensitive to its manifestation. We become less human, more sterile. Consumed by a blind hatred for Jews and Blacks, an octogenarian fascist attacked the symbol of Jewish suffering and killed a black man in the nation’s capital. The Brunns of the world always find someone to blame and take the easy way out by cutting down as many lives as they can to avenge their irrational anger and frustration. But they will have achieved nothing if, at the very least, we repudiate their acts in our hearts.