Tragedy in Toulouse


THE FORENSICS point to one gun, a .45-calibre automatic pistol, and the motorbike killer’s modus operandi also links the killings – more executions, it would seem, than murders. The three attacks, Monday in Toulouse’s Ozar Hatorah school, in which a teacher and three children died, and two last week in which three Arab or black French paratroopers died, have deeply shocked France and terrified the southwest where a state of emergency has been declared.

The school killings represent the deadliest attack on Jews in France since 1982, when the Chez Jo Goldenberg restaurant in Paris was bombed, killing six people and wounding 22. But it also comes at a time when the Jewish community has been warning of an upsurge in lower-level anti-Semitic attacks and harassment. And comes in the midst of a presidential election campaign in which the “threats” from immigration and Islam have been played up by more than one party, including President Sarkozy’s, in response to the perceived strength of the far-right Front National.

That climate of increased tolerance for what easily turns into hate speech is also a phenomenon that reaches through Europe as xenophobic parties make strong electoral gains. Yet whether Sarkozy’s cynical claims that there are “too many immigrants in France” or that the French are being secretly forced to eat halal are stoking anti-immigrant sentiment or merely nasty expressions of a prevailing mood is debatable.

If such peddling of prejudice does oxygenate the water in which killers swim freely, it is, however, not all the story by any means. Perhaps it’s too easy to point a finger of blame, to avoid more difficult questions about “lone wolf” killers like Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik, or Jared Lee Loughner (who killed six and critically wounded US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), both last year, or Robert Bales, accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, and how they manage to feed their growing paranoia to the point of explosive, murderous outbursts while remaining undetected.

The motivation for the French killings is as yet unclear beyond the shared fact of minority ethnicity. Racism appears to be the common thread, but that vagueness, and the probability that the killer is operating alone, make the challenge for the authorities all the more difficult. The frightening reality may be that their best hope may be when he exposes himself by striking again, as he probably will.