The attack was a sobering reminder that murderous terrorist violence can come from other places on the political spectrum than extreme Islamists, though they remain the prime terrorist national security threat to the United States and the American people at the moment. And it is certainly the case that times of economic depression -- and if the loss of 5.7 million American jobs in the past 18 months isn't a depression, then what is? -- do breed desperation and political violence.
But von Brunn was no moderate or quiet, ordinary person driven to extremism and hatred or outbursts of murderous violence by desperate times. He had been a hater of Jews, blacks and pretty much everyone else all his life. He served six years in jail when already in his 60s because in 1981 he tried to massacre the members of the Federal Reserve Board while they were meeting. A security guard intercepted him on that occasion too, right outside the room where the Fed officials were meeting at the time. On that occasion, von Brunn was armed with a sawed-off shotgun, a revolver and a knife. In 1983 he was finally sentenced to six years in jail. He didn't get out until he was almost 70 years old.
Von Brunn's life of seething, undiluted and never-ending hate contrasted remarkably with that of the man he killed. Johns was warm, popular and universally cherished. He led a life almost half a century shorter than von Brunn, yet every day of it was blessed. He went out a hero, saving the lives of probably scores of innocent schoolchildren who were visiting the museum at the time.
Von Brunn described himself as an artist like his hero Adolf Hitler. He spewed out hate against blacks, Jews and everyone else he claimed was diluting the "gene pool." He did not fit at all into any "profile" of any likely terrorist, for reasons of his age alone. His crime and the far greater crime that Stephen Johns prevented him from carrying out confirm the terrible uncertainty and unpredictability of a world in which the most unlikely scenarios like religious extremists hijacking airliners at knifepoint and flying them into skyscrapers, killing thousands of people, can happen like a bolt from the blue.
Ironically, von Brunn served in the U.S. Navy through World War II. He was one of the "greatest generation," though an exceptionally untypical member of it. His attack came not long after a doctor who performed late-term abortions was killed in Wichita, Kan., allegedly by a man with anti-abortion-rights beliefs, and the shooting of two people, one of whom died, at a Little Rock, Ark., military recruiting office, allegedly by a man driven by "religious and political motives."
As disparate as the cases seem, their proximity in timing raises the speculation that their perpetrators may finally have been driven into murderous activity by the increasingly desperate times that so many Americans are facing.
Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic and other groups all condemned the attack. President Barack Obama said, "This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms." The president had previously referred to the Holocaust and the 6 million Jews who were killed in his keynote speech to the Arab and wider Muslim world at Cairo University last week.
It is ironic that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were all severely criticized recently for an internal report that listed right-wing extremism as a likely source of terrorist violence, though most of the criticism was in the context of the risk that such groups would appeal to some former soldiers. But Wednesday's attack shows once again that deadly violence can come for a myriad of reasons from a host of different directions.
Von Brunn's attack and Stephen Johns' heroic sacrifice revive memories of Liviu Librescu, the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who sacrificed himself to save the lives of the young students in his class, when he crucially delayed another rampage killer, 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hu, from breaking into his classroom at Virginia Tech until they all escaped.
In both cases, senseless crimes of contemptible evil against innocent people were at least in part foiled by the quick thinking and decisive response of heroic individuals who were also bywords for being warm, loving and indomitable spirits. Stephen Johns and Liviu Librescu had already qualified for any heaven there is by the remarkable lives they led. How they died should simply guarantee their entrance to that realm saluted by honor guards of angels.