It turned out that the perpetrator of the Toulouse shootings was an Islamist nutter. Mohamed Merah was a would-be jihadist who claimed to be acting on behalf of Al Qaeda, his murders of three soldiers, three schoolchildren and a rabbi being a protest against French participation in Afghanistan and against Israel. It might have turned out differently. The killer might have been a far-right nutter in the mould of Anders Behring Breivik. Until he was positively identified, no-one was in a position to say.
That, however, didn't stop them.
On Comment is Free Fiachra Gibbons was quick off the mark on Monday with a monumentally ill-considered piece of conclusion-jumping. Implying (more-or-less out-and-out saying, actually) that the imaginary neo-fascist gunman was the creation of Nicolas Sarkozy's rhetoric about immigration, he wrote:
Police are a long way yet from catching, never mind understanding, what was going through the head of someone who could catch a little girl by the hair so he wouldn't have to waste a second bullet on her. But some things are already becoming clear. He shouted no jihadist or anti-Semitic slogans, going about his grisly business in the cold, military manner oddly similar to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian gunman who massacred 77 people at a social democrats summer camp last summer.
As with Breivik, politicians will be quick to the thesis of the lone madman...
Not even Sarkozy, who has most politically to lose from these killings, is trying to hide the link with race and religion. Just as he echoed the old National Front slogan "Love France or leave it" and then denied he ever said it, he yesterday called on the French people to stand up "against hate", having spent the past few months manically stirring it.
There's something almost gleeful about the way Gibbons tries to pin the blame for the shootings on mainstream French conservatives.
The notion of Merah as a new Breivik fitted so readily into the favoured Guardian narrative that as soon as it seemed possible that the perpetrator might be a far-rightest rather than an Islamist that it took little to convince a wide swathe of bien-pensant opinion that he had to be.
That point came when the killer of Jewish schoolchildren was identified as being the same man responsible for the deaths of three French soldiers of immigrant background -- shootings that had has relatively little publicity outside France. There was an easy motive to hand -- hatred of immigrants. It fitted into a convenient framework -- a story about how foolhardy politicians and opinion-formers played into the hands of extremists by questioning the benefits of large-scale immigration and the growth of large, poorly-integrated minority communities. And indeed, it placed these politicians and opinion-formers on a moral continuum with the perpetrator of this attack. Above all, it allowed people such as Gibbons to feel morally superior.
A form of confirmation bias was operating. Gibbons, and others, leapt upon on any scrap of evidence that might appear to indicate that the Toulouse killer was a white racist rather than an extremist Muslim, however weak (such as the fact that there were apparently no reports of the killer shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- no-one heard him shouting "Hurray for Hitler!" either). And of course the Breivik killings were more readily to mind than less recent Islamist atrocities in Europe. This may be an effect of news filtering rather than of actual occurrences, though. The random massacre of Sgt Robert Bales in Afghanistan has attracted far more news coverage than the almost regular slayings of NATO troops by rogue Afghan soldiers and police.
Just as the Merah killings were eagerly blamed on white racists, so the Oklahoma bombing was speedily blamed on Islamists, as was Breivik's terror spree when the news broke. But then again the Madrid train bombing of 2004 initially looked (to many observers) like ETA. Best not to write these sort of articles until all the facts are in. I can see why Gibbons was so delighted, though. If it had been another Breivik, a Breivik wannabe, a Front National supporter, a neo-Nazi, one can imagine the delirium that would have resulted among the left-wing and the right-on as they fell over themselves to paint the Toulose terrorist as the freakish lovechild of Geert Wilders and Melanie Phillips.
As it is, we have to settle for this kind of thing from Nabila Ramdani:
Far-right politicians have already seized on the image of the lethal young Muslim from an Algerian immigrant background. The National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is on course to win up to 20% of the popular vote in the presidential elections beginning next month, said it was time to "launch a war" against a "fundamentalist risk which has been underestimated in our country"....
Sarkozy, himself no stranger to right-wing demagoguery, will also now try to make political capital out of Merah. Earlier this month, the president stated that there were "too many foreigners" in France, and pledged to halve the number of immigrants arriving in France. His presidency has been marked by firm measures against Muslims, including a burqa ban. That Merah told the France 24 TV channel by telephone that he "objected to the law on the veil" and that "Jews have killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine" will be fully exploited by Sarkozy as he tries to win back votes from the National Front.
It's always wrong to make political capital out of a tragedy, of course. Though when did that stop any politician or, for that matter, any columnist? But does Nabila Ramdani really suppose that Sarkozy's opponents were not champing at the bit to make political capital out of Toulose had it turned out to be the work of a far-right extremist? Some, as we've seen with Gibbons, had already prematurely done so. Still, there's comfort to be had in the thought that, while it's no longer possible to blame Sarkozy's rhetoric for inspiring the Toulouse killer, you can still accuse him of making political capital out of the situation. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Alas, I can't do better than this comment from Pat Davers underneath Ramdani's article, so I'll just share it with you:
The kind of person who believes Mohammad Merah to be part of a worldwide trend towards Islamism, is also the kind of person who thought Anders Brevik was a lone loony, representing no-one.
The kind of person who believed Anders Brevik was part of a worldwide trend towards Fascism, is also the kind of person who thinks Mohammad Merak is a lone loony, representing no-one.
Is one of them right, or neither or both?