Even if it doesn't last, Europeans are showing a sense of continental solidarity at a time when it's badly needed.
French President Sarkozy attends a funeral ceremony for the French soldiers killed by a gunman in incidents thought to be connected to the school shooting / Reuters
French security forces today arrested a man suspected of shooting four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse earlier this week, as well as carrying out earlier shootings of French soldiers. The suspect has claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda. This is a story that doubtless will develop and take on new dimensions in the coming days and weeks. One remarkable aspect of the coverage of the past few days, however, has been the sense of solidarity within Europe as the French police hunted for the killer.
"We are all Americans," ran Le Monde's famous headline on September 12, 2001. Solidarity is a common response to tragedy. But European coverage of the French shootings evinces more than mere sympathy: many outlets are portraying the violence as an attack on European values, and thus a European problem to solve. In a year when the European community has seen more than its fair share of finger-pointing and national stereotyping, this perhaps fleeting sense of collective responsibility and common identity is an interesting moment.
Papers all over Europe picked up French philosopher and public figure Bernard-Henri Lévy's op-ed on the incident. "Stand up, when children are massacred!" ran the German headline in Die Welt over Lévy's piece. Spanish paper El Paísopted for, "After the Toulouse killing: all united against anti-Semitism."
The individual offerings were still more telling."Terrorism in France is an attack on Europe's freedom," argued Michael Stürmer in Die Welt.
Terror is no party, no sect, no army, but a method to spread fear and dread, to cripple the soul and control the public realm. [...] In this discipline Europe still has much to learn, without paranoia and panic [...] No one should think that Germany is immune to such a crime. We have thus far largely been spared. Much has been intercepted in advance. Sometimes we, and especially the authorities, have simply been lucky. There is no guarantee that it will remain that way in the future. Is all this a French concern or something that concerns Europe as a whole, because it threatens the European way of life?
This is similar to the responses in other papers. "Is Europe returning to political violence?" askedEl País, opening up the sensitive question. This particular debate prompt seemed to link the French shootings with other instances of right-wing nationalist violence across Europe: the attack on Senegalese traders in Florence by a member of Italy's far-right, and the case of Anders Breivik in Norway. Now that the suspect has claimed membership in al-Qaeda, the contours of this particular debate seem likely to change.
Yet the sense of common mourning and common problem-solving, as expressed in the past few days, does not seem to have been wholly predicated on a certain conception of the shooter's identity. For one thing, several prominent articles, including one particularly simple and forceful one by Günther Nonnenmacher for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, suggested as early as Monday that this attack seemed likely to be linked to Islamic terrorism -- this theory was hardly unknown as the other articles were being written and published.
"The children who died in the massacre in Toulouse are not 'other' people's children, of another land and another country," wrote Joanne Favro for the Italian La Stampa. "Our children are also victims. Killed by a monster that overruns not only France but also Italy, Europe, and the world." Italian minister of education Francesco Profumo clearly agreed, asking for a minute of silence on Tuesday to "reflect" on "intolerance." This theme, he said, "goes beyond the borders of France and even Europe," but should be examined particularly carefully by "the countries of the E.U." He also noted that schools play "a primary role in the formation of consciences."
The call to action was echoed in an editorial in Austria's prominent Wiener Zeitung as well, though again with some mention of the European far right, which thus far appears to be uninvolved in this case.
The gruesome series of murders in France should awaken Europe as a whole. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is serving nationalist circles, and extreme right party Jobbik, resting at 20 percent in the polls, is openly anti-Semitic -- and willing to resort to violence.
In the Netherlands the government depends on a far-right party. In Denmark and France the nationalist parties are extremely strong, and in Austria the FPÖ [Freedom Party of Austria] lies in second place in the polls.
Everywhere in Europe, where ruling parties strive with speeches and actions to pull the voters of such parties to their side and make intolerable concessions, society radicalises.
It remains to be seen whether the vision of France's shootings, as indicative of a broader European problem, will persist as we learn more about the shooter. One thing, however, seems clear. Europe may have its problems, and the E.U. may well show further signs of fracture in the coming months. But what has been appearing in the European media are the unmistakable signs of a common European identity and a sense of common responsibility for social problems and violent intolerance. This sort of language -- particularly at this level of strength and clarity -- was extremely rare only a few decades ago.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.