Last week's fatal shooting of a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was an American tragedy. It was a tragedy that hurts every bone in the body of this country. Although we have lived through many tragedies before, each one hurts like it was the first one. But in every one, there is a lesson to be learned.
The start of this year marked a new beginning for this country — the United States elected its first Afri-can-American president. While historic, a black man's ascension to our nation's highest office, of course, did not extinguish racism or silence supremacists. We are clearly not yet where we had hoped to be. The reality is that since President Obama took office, hate and hate groups in this country have been on the rise. Last month, the FBI thwarted a plot by extremists who claim to be Muslim to bomb synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military airplanes.
President Obama recently visited the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and spoke about the continuing intolerance of those who hate otherness, whether it be racial, sexual or religious — a hatred "that degrades its victims and diminishes us all." He could not have known that only days later, he would have to issue a statement condemning an atrocity that took place practically in his backyard, in the very space where such acts are studied and recognized as present-day threats.
Let this recent attack be a wake-up call. For us to be any sort of beacon of hope to the rest of the world, we must truly change ourselves. We must take a deep look inside at who we are, and begin to transform our hatred to love. We do this by putting our foot down and saying that enough is enough. We do this through painful, honest dialogue. We do this by working together.
Racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are alive and well in America. That we know. That is what is so painful. But the pain must not cloud our judgment. We must work to let the legacy of Security Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns be a renewed commitment to fight the abhorrent racism that continues to plague our country. Let us stop pointing fingers at others, and begin to truly examine ourselves and strive to a place of love and respect, rather than hate and tragedy.
Let us cleanse the hatred from within.
Perhaps in our eagerness to achieve a "postracial" society, a harmonious government that works as a bipartisan unit and all the other ambitious goals of late, we forgot that there is always effort that must be expended first. By coming together, we are not already past or post anything; we are just beginning the process.
What more can be done? The work is there waiting for us, but maybe we can be less wary of it. We can change our trajectory and arrive at our destinations sooner, as long as the necessary steps of tolerance and understanding are taken.
The Holocaust museum normally closes only on Yom Kippur and Christmas Day, but last week, it was closed to honor Mr. Johns. Our work continues long after the museum reopens.
Rabbi Marc Schneier and Russell Simmons are, respectively, president and chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting racial harmony and strengthening intergroup relations.