The Jewish School Shooting and Patterns of Violence

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This morning's deadly attack is already sparking a debate about whether France, or even Europe more broadly, has a problem with violence against minorities.

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Police outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse / Reuters

It is still too early to know why an unidentified shooter attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, this morning. According to initial reports, the gunman entered the private secondary school around 8:15 a.m. and began firing indiscriminately, though The Guardian reports witnesses suggesting that "he pursued some children, including a girl who he reportedly pulled by the hair." The gunman then fled on a motorbike, having killed three children and a teacher.


The attack does bear, as the police have noticed, a strong resemblance to two other shootings in the past week and a half. Both were perpetrated by a man on just such a scooter, and the latest ballistics analysis being reported by Le Nouvel Observatuer suggests the same weapon was used in all three attacks. The victims were soldiers of North African origin. 

It is easy to speculate, given the victims in all three attacks, that this is the work of a terrorist or an individual with an ethnic agenda: this theory has already been floated publicly by one of the three psychiatrists interviewed by French paper Le Figaro. Equally possible, however, as another suggests, this may well be the work of a madman. Based on the evidence available thus far, "it's perhaps necessary not to search for rational but rather delusional logic," Claude Halmos told the newspaper. The third psychiatrist, Pierre Lamothe, argues that these works resemble those less of a "serial killer than a mass murderer. The first repeats his killings while destroying evidence. The second sees himself as having a sacred mission to fulfill."

The only thing that seems certain at this point is the mark this act is likely to leave on the Jewish community in France. This latest attack, whatever its motivation, constitutes at least psychologically a brutal continuation of a trend that French Jews have endured for a decade. France's Jewish community, as the country's newspapers are already recalling, has been the target of many attacks in the past 30 years (Le Figaro has a timeline), several in the 1970s and 80s, for example the assassination of Israeli diplomat Yacov Barsimantov in Paris or the 1979 explosion targeting Jewish students the day after the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, involved specifically anti-Israel sentiment, the former eventually linked to a Lebanese guerrilla group.

The early 2000s, however, brought a particularly nasty outbreak of anti-Semitism. On December 31, 2001, a classroom of a Jewish school was set on fire, one of several incidents in the period to involve arson. April of 2002 saw the Or Aviv synagogue in Marseille burned to the ground, with two other synagogues in Lyon and Strasbourg set on fire that same Passover-Easter weekend. Since 2005, the French government has been working to increase security around synagogues as well as Jewish schools, nurseries, and community associations. This has not completely halted the attacks, however, which included two cases arson in 2009, the latter targeting a school in Marseille. Le Monde notes what, in retrospect, is sure to be seen as a haunting statement by interior minister Claude Guéant only Sunday, prior to Monday's shooting.

Sunday March 18, before the Jews of France assembled before the Central Jewish Consistory in Paris, interior minister Claude Guéant, while underlying the 'cold statistics' of the drop in antisemitic acts in the past two years, assured [that] "Vigilance dictates the continuance of these efforts in 2012 [...]"


Until the motivation behind the attacks is known -- and perhaps after that -- this incident also seems likely to reignite a discussion in Europe more broadly. Though the victims in this case are less numerous, this incident comes in the same year-long period that saw Anders Breivik's attack on the government buildings in Oslo and the Workers' Youth League camp, as well as the uncovering of the neo-Nazi terrorist cell in Germany responsible for the killings of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek, and a German policewoman, between 2000 and 2007. This attack may prove to be completely unrelated to other such instances of violence in France and across Europe, even in terms of political sympathies -- Breivik's diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic, for example, suggests his attack had at least as much to do with his own insanity as it did with politics. But as a headline on French website Rue89 -- "France's 'Oslo'" - -already shows, the feeling of this shooting being part of a broader trend is unavoidable.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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