The title of this post is from the Vulgate Latin of Genesis 28:17. Of old, it was the Introit or entrance hymn proper to the dedication of a new church in the Catholic tradition. Literally translated, it means "This is a terrible place," but "terrible" needs to be understood not in the modern sense of something awful or bad, but a place that inspired awe. I'd have said "awesome," but those connotations are not right, either--especially in view of the context in which I'm writing.
Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (of which I have the honor to be a charter member), was shot and killed this afternoon in the line of duty at the museum. An 88-year-old Maryland man, James W. von Brunn, walked into the museum carrying a rifle, pointed it at Mr. Johns, and pulled the trigger. Mr. Johns did not even have time to draw his own weapon. Mr. von Brunn, described as a "hard-core" white supremacist (is there another kind?), was wounded by other guards who returned fire. He is listed in critical condition at George Washington University Hospital.
This was heller Wahnsinn, to use the language Mr. von Brunn's ancestors probably spoke, "utter madness." Wahn is virtually an untranslatable word in German--there is no clear English cognate. "Madness," "insanity," "mania," "delusion," "craziness"--all fit, but none of them precisely.
The last time I was in Washington, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time. It was, indeed, both a terrible and an awesome place: not quite the equal, in my estimation, of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but nevertheless a hallowed place for what it commemorates and the work that goes on there. Terribilis est locus iste, indeed. The museum may not, to carry on with the text of Genesis, be literally a domus Dei et porta caeli, "the house of God and the gate of heaven," but it is certainly now a more terrible and awesome place for having the blood of a martyr spilled at its very gates.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Mr. Johns. I will leave them with some words that may perhaps provide some comfort in their time of sorrow:
...all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
--John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII
It is tremendously distressing to think that there are people in the world so filled with hatred that they could even begin to conceive of, much less actually carry out, an act such as this. Intellectually I know that this is true, but in all other respects, the mind boggles and refuses to credit that such a thing could be. Sad enough that we must build museums such as this, so that the horrors it commemorates never happens again. Sadder still that even in a world where such museums exist, there are still people whose hearts are hardened against the lessons they are there to teach, and who would quite happily pick up where Hitler and the Nazis left off. That makes my task as a modern European historian who studies the Nazi period all the more important. Mine to remember, and to pass along that memory, so that perhaps there shall come a day, someday, when any possibility of a repetition is gone.
Until that day dawns, however, the USHMM needs to be there--and this nation needs to sit down and take a serious look inside the darker recesses of its soul--and its law codes. What in heaven's name was an 88-year-old man doing with a rifle, for the love of God? And how did he manage to walk through the streets of our nation's capital, just blocks off the National Mall and literally next door to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, carrying it?
Predictably (and no, I absolutely, positively will not link to it: if you must, you can Google), the inhabitants of Right Wingnuttistan are in a tizzy, refusing to accept that the perpetrator of this undeniable act of domestic terrorism was one of their own. They're still trying to pretend he was a closet Muslim--apparently only Muslims commit acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. (So I guess Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh must have been Muslims, too?) I feel confident in predicting that the National Rifle Association, in its never-ending quest to enshrine the right of an eight-year-old to buy an Uzi without a waiting period (and then to carry it, loaded, anywhere he pleases), will shortly come out with some truly tasteless bit of propaganda, the point of which will be that the solution to problems such as this act of terrorism is to ensure that all citizens are packing heat at all times.
My understanding of another piece of Scripture grows deeper this night--Psalm 120:6:
I have lived too long among a people that hates peace.