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