The Copenhagen gunman who took two lives this weekend knew exactly whom he wanted to kill. The free speech conference at a cafe in Copenhagen featured Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who has faced repeated attacks and threats on his life since he drew a satirical cartoon of Muhammad in 2007. The gunman fired perhaps 40 shots into the cafe, killing one person and wounding two police officers. Had he not been prevented from entering, he could have massacred dozens of people. The gunman then walked to a different part of town, 30 minutes away, where he attacked a synagogue in which a bat mitzvah was being held. Fifty children were moved into the synagogue basement; a volunteer guard was killed.
The attack mimicked the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris in January—and has thereby revived a controversy over President Obama’s comments on that prior incident. Obama told Vox that Americans should be concerned about violent, vicious zealots who “randomly shoot a bunch of folks at a deli in Paris.”
Shooting up a kosher market does not seem a very random act, especially not when the killer himself told journalists: “I have 16 hostages and I have killed four. I targeted them because they were Jewish.” Yet for almost a full day, spokespersons first for the White House and then the State Department defended the president’s choice of words:
MATT LEE, AP: Does the administration really believe that these—that the victims of this attack were—were not singled out because they were of a particular faith?
JEN PSAKI: Well, as you know, I believe if I remember the victims specifically, they were not all victims of one background or one nationality. So I think what they mean by that is, I don't know that they spoke to the targeting of the grocery store or that specifically, but the individuals who were impacted.
Journalists sympathetic to President Obama have ridiculed the controversy over those words as “Randomgate”—a contrived uproar with no larger meaning. Yes, they concede, the president chose his words poorly. Yes, spokespeople for the White House and State Department made things worse by defending the poor choice rather than straightforwardly confessing a pardonable verbal slip. But so what? As Jonathan Chait observed:
What makes this so bizarre is that it is not—or at least, was not—administration policy to deny the anti-Semitic character of the obviously anti-Semitic attack on Hyper Cache. In the wake of the attack, the State Department called it a “cowardly anti-Semitic assault.” A few weeks ago, an administration statement denounced “anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris.” Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called the attacks “the latest in a series of very troubling incidents in Europe and around the world that reflect a rising tide of anti-Semitism.” And the administration has spoken forcefully on the general trend of rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
Chait might have added that some of the most forceful condemnations of anti-Semitism have come from the president personally. President Obama has empathized with the traumas of Jewish history eloquently and often, not least in his 2011 address to the United Nations General Assembly: "The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied."