It was, it appears, a Muslim radical behind the massacre in Toulouse -- a French-born petty thief who traveled in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was already under surveillance by French authorities. It was not, as first thought, French neo-Nazis. To which the question arises, "Does it matter which?" Yes, it does, because the response of both governments and individuals differ depending on the culprit.
Neo-Nazis are part of the woodwork in Europe, but official society treats their outbursts like a social disease. Wealthy or important people given to ranting are like relatives with a drinking problem - fashion guru John Galliano was fired from Dior, fined and shuffled off to "rehab." Unwashed Nazis are punished. The original three suspects in the Toulouse shooting were cashiered from an elite unit of the French Army for appearing in a photograph in a private house draped in a Nazi flag.
There is no official tolerance for Nazis; this is not a complaint.
Radical Muslims, however, present Europe with a different sort of problem, one that frightens governments enough to make them treat their increasingly large, loud and sometimes violent minorities very, very gently. It would be unfair to say Muslim terrorism is tolerated, but Muslim crime certainly is and the French are not always clear on the difference. President Sarkozy immediately ordered additional police protection for Jewish and Muslim schools, as if it were a matter of crime targeting schools, not terrorists targeting Jews.
There have already been the requisite nods toward Islam as peaceful and the gunman -- not any ideology/religion he studied or espoused -- solely to blame, although one can imagine that Nazi-ism would be fair game. The gunman's neighbors have lined up to tell reporters that he was a nice guy, a quiet person, and not very religious. Just a normal French citizen who happened to have a criminal background, belong to a Salafist group and travel to Afghanistan (where he was arrested for bomb making!) and Pakistan.
Mohammed Merah was already well known and under surveillance by French authorities, but even after what appears to have been his first murder (of a French soldier), he remained at large. This stands in contrast to Italian police who last week pre-empted a planned attack on the Milan synagogue by arresting a Moroccan-born Muslim who had trafficked in Islamic radicalism before he did the deed.
And despite the fact that he will be charged with "terrorism," prosecutor Francois Molins took pains to point out that under French law, terrorism can be "any crime that is carried out to disrupt the national order and does not have to be linked to a political cause." The French government therefore isn't necessarily saying Merah is an Islamic radical who killed French soldiers and French Jewish children out of ideological conviction -- he could equally be simply a "hate monger" or a "racial supremacist."
Dominique Thomas, an expert in radical Islam, told Agence France Presse (AFP) that the killer's method and logistics show that apparently he does not belong to a network. Former French spy chief Louis Caprioli said although Merah must have had outside help to get to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he could nevertheless be a "lone wolf."
And there have been the "yes, but..." comments, which are offered as explanatory but which are, in fact, exculpatory in the eyes of some. (You have to imagine the "Yes, but...")
"He was angry with French troops being in Afghanistan and killing Muslims."
"Muslims live with horrible prejudice in France and the failure of France to integrate Muslims makes them lash out." There is at least one report that Merah called a French radio station to say that he wanted revenge for the ban on wearing the full Islamic veil in public.
These are problems of France, not of Jews, but Jewish identity leads to a somewhat different "yes but..."
"Israelis kill Palestinian children in Gaza -- remember that poor little girl all bloodied after the last Israeli Air Force attack? And her poor father?" (Yes, it was an old photo of a child killed in a car accident having nothing to do with Israel, but people believe what they want to believe.)
While his first anguished comments were indeed about the victims, President Sarkozy quickly turned to protecting the sensitivities of the Muslim population. "I have brought the Jewish and Muslim communities together to show that terrorism will not manage to break our nation's feeling of community. We must stand together. We must not cede to discrimination or vengeance."
Too late for the Jews.
Shoshana Bryen writes for the Jewish Policy Center, from where this article is adapted.