Why did Mohammed Merah kill three children and a teacher at the Otzar Torah school in Toulouse, France? Why did he previously kill three French soldiers in two shootings prior to Monday’s massacre? Eric Pape writes in “A Tragedy in Toulouse” (via Andrew Sullivan):
Prior to the Jewish school attack, anti-racism groups had been pointing to what they saw as the troubling xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and perhaps even anti-Semitic subtext of the presidential campaigns by the far-right National Front party as well as Sarkozy’s “respectable right” ruling party. Both have criticized Muslims — and, to a lesser extent, Jews — during the controversy over halal and kosher meat. And both have called for stark reductions in legal immigration to France. (The far right wants a 90 percent drop, while Sarkozy’s UMP has said that 50 percent is the most that is possible.) Prominent figures in both parties have amalgamated immigration and crime, despite the absence of any legitimate statistics on the matter.
The other dominant theory about the killer is that he could be a radical Islamist — whether a lone wolf inspired from afar or someone affiliated with an international power structure — who took aim at the soldiers as a message to France about its military policy abroad, and at the Jewish school to get back at Israel. There is no shortage of aspects of French foreign policy that might create enemies these days, from the ongoing French military presence in Afghanistan to the successful efforts to help overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya to intensifying political sanctions in Iran to the Élysée’s desire for regime change in Syria.
Aside from faulting Sarkozy, this isn’t unreasonable. Until Merah was identified as the shooter, the killer’s choice of targets suggested these two motivations. Similarly, the possibility that Islamic terrorists were guilty of the bloodshed was considered before Anders Behring Breivik was identified as the perpetrator of the massacres in Norway.
However, there was plenty of speculation. A BBC report, which did consider the possibility of anti-Semitism, told us:
This was a killer in a completely different realm of hatred.
It may well turn out that he has a complex system of self-justification for all that he has done. But it also seems likely that psychologically he is deeply disturbed.
Certainly the brutality of the killings — especially chasing down a girl before shooting her — shows hatred, but does it show the killer to be disturbed? A roundup of reports from the French media, presented by the BBC, emphasizes the idea of a (generally) racist killer.
Some, like MJ Rosenberg, didn’t consider any alternative.
Most unfortunate was a “memo” by Steven Erlanger, the Paris bureau chief of the New York Times: “Killings Could Stall Election’s Nationalist Turn”:
No one is suggesting that the French presidential campaign inspired a serial killer to put a bullet in the head of an 8-year-old Jewish girl.
Despite writing this, the theme of the remainder of his report is best summarized by this passage:
There is no question that Mr. Sarkozy has made appeals throughout his political career to French anxieties about crime and foreigners, and this campaign has been no exception.
Mr. Bayrou singled out a speech by Mr. Sarkozy in Grenoble in the summer of 2010, after a clash between poor Muslims and the police, that linked “unchecked” immigration and security problems. “We are subjected to the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently controlled immigration, which has produced a failure of integration,” Mr. Sarkozy said.
Erlanger’s disclaimer seems disingenuous as the bulk of the article suggests very strongly that Sarkozy’s campaign (and history) may have inspired a racist killer. Even the headline suggests that nationalism of the election is what created a climate in which such terror could take place.
The New York Times has not featured an editorial on the Toulouse massacre, but the Washington Post published “French attacks highlight the country’s immigrant challenge”:
Far-right leaders are seeking to exploit the tragedy, with presidential candidate Marine Le Pen claiming that “politico-religious fundamentalist groups” are “developing in a lax climate” in France. In fact, Mr. Sarkozy’s government has not done enough to improve conditions for young French Muslims who often live in immigrant ghettos. Mr. Merah reportedly told the police besieging him that his killings were meant as revenge for the ban on the public use of the Islamic veil, which was supported by Mr. Sarkozy. Though such policies don’t explain or excuse the attacks, more discrimination against Muslim communities is hardly the right response.
Mr. Merah also claimed he attacked the Jewish school to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel. This brought the best response of a terrible week, from Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life,” Mr. Fayyad said. We don’t expect al-Qaeda and its converts to respect his words — but they are a welcome step forward for a Palestinian leader.
Even after Merah was identified as the culprit, the Washington Post blamed French politics. And while Fayyad’s statement was welcome, it hardly makes up for the regular glorification of terrorists his government engages in.
It also marks an odd change. For Erlanger, the nationalist tone of the campaign apparently inspired a racist. For the Washington Post, the failure of France to treat its immigrants adequately served to aggravate Merah and people like him.
While some sought to explain the alienation felt by Merah, others perversely seemed to justify his actions. Most notoriously, EU Foreign Minister Lady Ashton, in a statement, equated the killings of the Jewish children in Toulouse with the suffering of children in Gaza. (Later, she apparently added a reference to the children of Sderot.)
Isabel Kershner of the New York Times wrote that Lady Ashton’s remarks were “perceived” by Israeli leaders as equating the two situations. Kershner compounded this at the end of the article:
In the latest cross-border violence between Israel and militant groups in Gaza, 26 Palestinians were killed over four days, according to the Israeli military. Most were militants, but four were civilians. A 12-year-old boy was among those killed in Israeli airstrikes; another boy, 14, was killed by explosives in disputed circumstances. In the same period, Palestinian militants fired over 150 rockets into southern Israel, none of which claimed a life.
Here Kershner’s confirming Ashton’s equivalence. (Later, Merah was quoted as saying that he targeted Jewish children to avenge the killing of Palestinian children by Israel, so Kershner unintentionally was justifying Merah’s grievance.)
But no Palestinian children have ever been targeted by Israel for murder. Quite the reverse: Israel regularly puts its own soldiers in harm’s way in order to minimize civilian casualties in military operations against Palestinian terrorists and their infrastructure which it undertakes solely to protect its own people from further murderous Palestinian attacks. Any Palestinian child casualties in such operations occur solely as a tragic and inadvertent by-product of war — and as often as not because the Palestinians have put their own children in harm’s way.
Kershner’s mention of the recent terror against southern Israel is perverse for another reason. In the instance she describes as “disputed” — according to Israeli sources, the boys were trying to fire a rocket into Israel — a second teenager was injured. The injured boy was transferred to Israel for treatment. A youth was attempting to sow terror in Israel, was injured doing so, and Israel saw to his (unsuccessful) treatment. How is that similar to Toulouse?
Kershner, who was scrupulous in attributing children killed by Israel, even inadvertently, missed the case of another child killed in Gaza — an eight-year-old who was killed by wild shooting at a funeral. Apparently when a child isn’t killed by Israel, it isn’t news.
Surprisingly, the most informative story I saw explaining Merah was “Suspect in France Shootings Seen as Homegrown Militant” (via Challah Hu Akbar):
Much of the concern about domestic terrorism in Britain, Belgium, Germany and France has focused on these young people, who may have had little formal religious education but are susceptible to calls for jihad, especially when their own lives have been marked by disappointment, crime, racism and joblessness.
France, with its significant Algerian population, has been under high terrorism alert since 2005, and in 2010 the police warned of a significant and “specific” risk of a terrorist attack from al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate. Since then, bomb threats have disrupted public transportation and forced the authorities to evacuate the Eiffel Tower.
Mr. Merah, with his history of delinquency, disaffection and militant links, holds precisely the résumé that terrorism experts say is most likely to yield a violent, homegrown jihadi. “We are halfway between the lunatic and the terrorist,” said Éric Denécé, an expert on French intelligence. “There is often a thin line between petty crime and al-Qaeda.”
The article explains how many Muslim youth became disaffected and turn to radical Islam. For the most part it doesn’t attempt to minimize Merah’s culpability. Whatever one thinks of Sarkozy’s campaigning, it explains why Muslim immigrants are viewed with suspicion in France.
The article about homegrown militants also reinforces another question. Meryl Yourish asked: “Why not for the soldiers?” Meryl points out that after the soldiers were killed, French authorities had a lot of clues that may have well led them to Merah. Given that Merah already was on the authority’s radar, why didn’t the French police connect him to the soldiers’ killings before he had a chance to strike at Otzar Hatorah?
We see that in the major media there was a hesitancy to attribute the massacre at Otzar Hatorah to a radical Islamist. Did the French authorities share the same reluctance?