No Islamists Here: Media Buries Motive on Toulouse

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.