A suspected white supremacist opened fire inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington today, killing a security guard who stopped him in the entrance before being wounded by return gunfire.
The museum that commemorates the victims of genocide in the second world war became the scene of bloodshed and panic today, when an elderly man suspected of writing racist anti-Semitic internet tracts entered the building brandishing a rifle and opened fire on two guards who confronted him.
The killing of security guard Stephen Johns, whose quick action officials credited with saving perhaps dozens of lives, came just five days after Barack Obama visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and implored the world never to forget those who perished in the Holocaust.
"I am shocked and saddened by today's shooting at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum," Obama said in a statement. "This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honour those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world."
"The security guards performed exceptionally well and exactly as they were supposed to," Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty told reporters. "In these days and times you never know when someone is going to grab a gun and use it in an inappropriate way."
Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the gunman appeared to have acted alone, though the FBI was investigating the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.
Police officials suspected James Von Brunn in the shooting and found his car blocks from the museum. Von Brunn, 89, was in critical condition at a Washington hospital tonight. On a racist, anti-Semitic website purportedly written by Von Brunn, he says he was a lieutenant in the US navy during the second world war and lived in Maryland, about two hours away from Washington, and worked as an artist.
In 1983 Von Brunn was convicted of attempting to kidnap members of the US federal reserve board. At the time, police said Von Brunn wanted to take the members hostage because of high interest rates and the nation's economic difficulties. On the website, Von Brunn blames his six-year imprisonment on "a Jew judge" and "Negro jury".
After the shooting, about 2,000 stunned visitors fled onto the pavement outside and police established a wide perimeter around the museum, snarling traffic across downtown Washington. The museum, a US government body, lies within blocks of the White House, the US capitol building and several major monuments, along a heavily policed corridor of government office buildings.
Eyewitnesses standing outside the police cordon reported hearing about four to six gunshots just inside the entryway to the museum, near the x-ray machine and magnetometer visitors must walk through to enter.
David Unruh, 66, from Wichita, Kansas, said he was in the lobby when he heard shots and somebody yell "hit the floor". He was roughly 30 feet from where the shots were fired. He, his wife and two grandsons dropped to the floor and a man shielded them. "We were scared to death," he said. He said the evacuation was orderly but people were visibly upset.
"You feel pretty secure," he said. "You've gone through security. You don't expect that to happen at a place like this. It's a place of dignity and respect."
The shooting was the third in the US in recent weeks that appear to have been motivated by political hatred. Last week a man opened fire outside an Army recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and wounding another. Late last month, an anti-abortion extremist killed Kansas physician George Tiller at his church.