On Wednesday, as the fatal shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. unfolded, I couldn't help recalling that my daughter, Jeni Mitchell, just out of college, worked at the museum during its start-up, in 1992, through its 1993 opening, and two years after that. I also remembered that she had told me, long ago, about some of the scary threats she and others received just for working there, and the extraordinary security measures (little publicized) that they had to take. Of course, I forgot most of the details.
Fortunately, moved and upset by the tragic attack by a racist, anti-Semite, she wrote me from London -- where she's getting her Ph.D. -- last night, reflecting on her experience at the museum back in the 1990s.
Here's some of what she sent along:
The entire time I worked there, we always expected something terrible to happen. I was very lucky it didn't while I was there -- but it wasn't for lack of trying. Our head of security was a former FBI guy and he said we would not believe the volume of threats.
While the museum was being built, we were told that neighboring buildings were enhancing their security and protection in anticipation that the Museum would be a target for violent extremists, possibly even blown up.
When we opened, each of us working there received a 'security kit.' This was to supplement our in-person briefings. The kit contained instructions on what to do in the case of a bombing, an evacuation, receiving a bomb threat, etc.
The kit also included a piece of paper stapled to a stick; the paper screamed in bold letters, 'I'M GETTING A BOMB THREAT!' The idea was that if I were to receive an actual bomb threat, I should keep the guy on the line, stand on my chair and wave this sign around frantically until someone noticed.
One time, I was talking to this very nice woman in NYC on the phone, when our evacuation alarm went off. It was right behind my desk so I gave a little scream. I was pretty sure it was a drill, so I shouted into the phone 'I'll have to call you back,' but I couldn't be heard over the noise.
Off we went for our evacuation drill. Half an hour later I returned to my desk and called the woman back. It turns out that in the interim, she had called everyone she knew in New York to tell them the holocaust museum had been blown up. Whoops.
I actually received death threats. Personally, addressed to me at my office. Written in cramped, sociopathic handwriting, pages and pages of nonsense. I turned them over to security and didn't worry about it (who would bother to kill the schedule coordinator?) but it was chilling.
Also: Long before 9/11 we were well-versed in the procedures for unattended items. Several times we had to evacuate the main exhibit when lone bags were found (although thankfully they were false alarms). But I always felt that the people in the cloak room had the most worrisome job in the building.
A couple months ago, when there was that big controversy over the Department of Homeland Security report on potential right-wing terrorism, I could NOT believe that it was somehow controversial. Working at the Holocaust Museum in the first years of the Clinton administration was like having a front-row seat to right-wing hate groups. They are a peculiar American pathology, and they are not going anywhere.
I am really just heartbroken that after all these years, such terrible violence happened at a place dedicated to peaceful coexistence, nonviolence, mutual understanding, etc. And I am furious that an octogenarian nutcase can kill an innocent person.
Why do people keep working at places that are under threat? Because they're so important, and because we love working there. I never met a person who went through the whole museum who wasn't deeply, deeply affected by it. That makes all the craziness worthwhile.
Yes, there were people who hated us. They might act upon it; but what can you do? Run away? No. A small number of people wished us ill. A huge number of people were enduringly affected by their visit. There was no contest.
My co-workers there were immensely talented, intelligent, funny, brave and audacious. Many of them still work there, and I can only imagine what they are going through right now. Do they still think it's worth the risk to work there? I'm going to guess the answer is yes.
I never knew Stephen Johns, but he sounds like many of the security officers I knew then - friendly, helpful, always alert but unfailingly polite. I can't help but think that when he saw that old man coming toward the door, he thought: Here's a survivor, or a veteran, someone to be treated with special respect.
Anyway, sorry to ramble, I'm just pretty upset about this, and feeling mournful that the price to be paid for an Obama presidency seems to be an epidemic of well-armed lunatics."
To visit Jeni Mitchell's blog, the Crime-Conflict Nexus, go via this link.
Greg Mitchell's latest book is "Why Obama Won." He is editor of Editor & Publisher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org