Friday, June 12, 2009

While the flag flew at half-staff above the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Thursday, tourists who had planned to visit the shuttered city landmark took the occasion to contemplate the tragic events that unfolded there the previous day.

“I really was the most surprised about how old the guy was and the fact that he should understand that it’s not right to do stuff like that,” said Anina Parker, 12, of Turtle Creek, Pa., referring to the shooting suspect James W. von Brunn, 88. She was disappointed that she could not visit the museum with her sixth-grade class. “It’s unbelievable.”

The museum remained closed Thursday in honor of security guard Stephen T. Johns, who was fatally shot Wednesday - purportedly by Mr. von Brunn, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier. Mourners left flowers outside the building in honor of Mr. Johns, evoking an additional air of solemnity around what is normally a peaceful place of remembrance.

Hearing about the shooting was especially traumatic for children who were touring the nation’s capital Thursday.

“I’ve been just kind of looking around me, just a little bit, just to make sure nobody has been walking around us mysteriously,” said Montgomery Stewart, 10, of Nashville, Tenn., who was visiting the District for the first time.

The boy’s mother said the shooting caused her to re-evaluate her sense of security.

“You’re not safe anywhere,” said Amy Stewart, 42. “As long as there are humans around, you’re not safe.”

Many used the day to pray.

In the afternoon, a prayer vigil on the museum’s south steps drew more than 100 onlookers bearing white candles. A few bouquets were laid at the base of a portion of the museum wall that bore a quote from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower deploring the concentration camps he had seen in Germany.

“We decided we needed to do something,” said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. “This was an extraordinary response for such short notice.”

Those who prayed or spoke included Mr. Lobenstine, retired Washington Episcopal Suffragan Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, Nanik Lahori of the Association of Hindu Jain Temples of Metropolitan Washington, Imam Mohamed Magid, executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, in Sterling, Va., and representatives from the German and Israeli embassies.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which sponsored the event, also spoke. One of his listeners was Asma Hanif, a convert to Islam who showed up at the vigil sheathed in a deep-purple hijab and long skirt.

“I believe all God-conscious people would stand together against what’s wrong and for what’s right,” she said after the vigil. “As a Muslim and a human being, I wanted to be here. This could be our community next.”

Still, for many other tourists, business went on as usual on the Mall. Even some who were inside the museum when the shootout occurred returned quickly to their original itineraries.

Jeri Bousquet, who had been inside the building with her two sons during the incident, said she was shaken at the time but had no plans to leave the District early.

Her 11-year-old “wanted to leave [Wednesday],” said Mrs. Bousquet, who was visiting the District from Houston. “He was like ‘Let’s go home now!’ … But I don’t think anything like that will happen again.”

Tourist Fiona Miranda agreed, and said she is used to tragic incidents. She and her family are from Mumbai, India, where terrorists carried out a series of strategic attacks last year that killed or injured 470 people.

“I just feel if we keep on living in such terror, we are going to encourage people like this to carry on,” said Mrs. Miranda, who plans to visit the Holocaust museum with her children when it reopens. “If you don’t go out, you’re going to lose out.”

Some parents said they will be making a special point to visit the museum before they leave. The museum is expected to reopen Friday.

“My kids really need to have that experience,” said LaDonna Yaug, who is visiting with her family from Clearwater, Fla. “It’s a part of history.”

Some tourists also commented on how safe they felt with the visibly heightened level of security at museums.

Joan Weidner, 50, from Augusta, Ga., said she found the extra security presence comforting. She and her husband briefly considered canceling their trip.

“We did talk about it, and we said, ‘No, we’re going to do it anyway,’ ” she said. “You don’t stop your life. You go on.”

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