The moment the self-declared white supremacist, conspiracy theorist and hardcore antisemite James Von Brunn walked into the US Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this month and began opening fire, he brought more than death and the shattering of innocent lives to the public consciousness.
He also shattered a number of myths and rationales that saner members of society carry around with them when not confronted with pure hatred, face-to-face.
The first is the myth that time mellows a hardcore ideologue. At 88, with a documented, internet-accessible trail of publications and theories of racial supremacy and world domination that rational folks might pass off as Mein Kampf for Idiots, Von Brunn’s venom only intensified with age, together with his desire to act upon it.
The second myth is the notion that talkers aren’t doers; the idea, often held by law enforcement and hate-crimes specialists, that the “theoreticians” and “ideological” racists rarely take up arms themselves or seek to actualise their grievances or bring their worldview to its logical conclusion.
Anyone looking at Von Brunn’s police rap-sheet and prison record can see that this man’s midlife crisis — back in 1981 — involved quite a bit more than a dalliance with transgressive behaviour. Seeking to make a citizens arrest, he stormed the Federal Reserve carrying loaded weapons and sought to hold board members hostage because he considered them responsible for high interest rates and other economic difficulties. Later, at his trial where he was sentenced to 11 years in prison, he claimed he was convicted by a “Negro jury, Jew /Negro attorneys, and sentenced to prison for 11 years by a Jew judge. A Jew/Negro/White Court of Appeals denied his appeal.”
A third myth is the comfortable assumption that primarily “lone wolves” carry out such acts. Compared to America’s total population this may be true. But when US law enforcement agencies regularly cite some 926 organized hate groups at work at any given time — all with self-reinforcing hyperlinks to each others’ ideas and activities — it may be time to reconsider the notion that someone “acted alone”.
The reality seems to be that those who have been so busy of late murdering abortion physicians or plotting to blow up synagogues, or who see themselves as catalysts for a racial apocalypse may not be coordinating their plans. But they certainly operate in the same conceptual universe, feeding off a world-view shared by a network of supporters.
Which brings us to a fourth and, perhaps most worrying, myth: that vile, crackpot, incendiary and belligerent ideas are just that — only ideas. If anything, the well-documented world-view of James Von Brunn, with its grab-bag amalgam of hatreds shows us how easily ideas can lead to deeds.
It’s a lesson — particularly in light of the election to the European Parliament of two BNP candidates, one of them 61 with a “long pedigree” of activism with the National Front — that we ignore at our peril.