The Fallout from Toulouse

Will the massacre in France turn out to be Nicolas Sarkozy's Oklahoma City?

PARIS – The 32-hour standoff that began when authorities surrounded the apartment where terrorist Mohammed Merah was holed up in Toulouse came to a dramatic conclusion on Thursday, March 22, one that's sure to leave a mark on France, and its politics, for some time.

After police tracked down the killer of seven people -- including three small children -- they made repeated attempts to detain and negotiate with him. But after a long night in which authorities exploded noise bombs to keep a 23-year-old self-proclaimed al Qaeda supporter from resting, they moved in just prior to 11:30 a.m.

During the four-minute operation that followed, French police fired around 300 bullets and detonated an array of explosives. Cautious cops poked a camera to look into each room before entering -- until they reached the bathroom, according to Interior Minister Claude Guéant. "When the camera was introduced into the bathroom, the killer came out...guns firing, and jumped out the window, still shooting," Guéant told journalists in Toulouse.

Other authorities clarified that Merah was wearing a bulletproof vest, that he got off around 30 shots at the police -- injuring three, one seriously -- and that he made it onto a balcony where, as his guns blazed, a police marksman shot him in the head. (While the public prosecutor François Molins told reporters in Toulouse that Merah "jumped" off the balcony, it now seems clear that the bullet may have facilitated his decision.) Police found the young man's limp body on the ground, with his Colt .45 pistol nearby.

Merah's demise put an end to a saga that has shaken a nation already anxious about its sputtering economy and a nerve-wracking election campaign in which economic and xenophobic populism risks becoming the norm. But the 10-day rampage of the "motor scooter killer" was like nothing France has ever seen. The French have become sadly accustomed to hostage crises, radical and anti-Semitic bombings, and assassinations in recent decades, but a Natural Born Killers-style murder tour by motor scooter was something else. In a country where guns are relatively rare, a single man executed three French paratroopers of North African descent, seriously wounded a black soldier, and engaged in a callous assault on a Jewish school in Toulouse before going down firing. For most French people, this could only take place in America -- or in a Hollywood film.

Adding to that sense is the now-verified revelation that Merah filmed his gruesome escapades with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest. Molins described the footage as "very explicit," recounting that -- during the murder of one of the paratroopers -- Merah told his victim, "You kill my brothers. I kill you."

His "brothers," Merah suggested to authorities during the initial period of the standoff when he was speaking to them on a cell phone, apparently included the children of Palestine, and jihadist fighters in various parts of the world, like Afghanistan, where the French military is active. (He justified murdering the children at the Jewish school by claiming it as retaliation for Palestinian children killed in raids by the Israeli military.)

While Merah's death brought relief across France, it added new layers to the horror and uncertainty that he created. There will be no interrogation of the killer, no clear public explanation of his motives, and only a posthumous evaluation of his mental state.

But a broader examination of the current mental state of France is already beginning. As the nation struggles to get back to normal -- even as photos of the cherubic faces of victims (ages four, five, and seven) stared out from the top of Le Figaro newspaper on March 22 -- it is clear that the national climate has changed.

For one, a nation with a competent reputation for handling Islamist terrorism -- France has avoided jihadist terror on its soil for the last 15 years even as the United States was transformed by 9/11, Spain weathered the 2004 Madrid bombings, and Britain was struck by the 2005 London attacks -- feels notably more vulnerable.

And while the new normal involves picking up where things left off -- like the presidential election, the first round of which will take place on April 22 -- the nature and tone of debate have already transformed. Between now and May 6, when the French will choose the actual president in a run-off, they are sure to change several more times.

A pall of horror continues to linger, making traditional campaigning ungainly, and it is clear that the political and electoral balance has shifted. Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has faced the disapproval of nearly two-thirds of French voters for almost two years, has, during the killer's reign of terror, finally begun to begun to turn things around somewhat. Emerging surveys suggest that Sarkozy has reclaimed much of his natural base.

Conventional wisdom is that the resolution of the rampage without the deaths of anyone other than Merah will bring an electoral bounty to both Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who currently runs a strong third in all polls, at between 13 and 16 percent. After all, both have spoken out recently about the dangers of radical Islam (sometimes cynically blurring the lines with average Muslims as a form of political populism in their tug-of-war over hard-right and far-right votes).

Whatever the case, Merah fits a convenient profile: the French-born son of Algerian immigrants had a criminal record as a petty criminal (authorities have suggested that his radicalization began during a stint in prison). He was more deeply indoctrinated, they believe, during a pair of trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he appears to have received terrorist training in Waziristan.

Le Pen struck hard this week when it became clear that the attacker claimed to represent al Qaeda. "It is time to wage war on these fundamentalist political religious groups who are killing our children," Le Pen said on the television news channel i-Tele, adding a dig at Sarkozy's government: "The fundamentalist threat has been underestimated."

Le Pen, who has stigmatized Muslims repeatedly during her campaign -- whether related to Muslims praying in the street (because they can't fit into overcrowded mosques), a hullabaloo about halal viande replacing religion-free meat for non-Muslim consumers, or promising to end nearly all immigration from outside Europe. She even suggested that France should hold a referendum to bring back the death penalty. A substantial majority of the French are against capital punishment, but the proposal is sure to play well to a chunk of the electorate that she and Sarkozy are wrestling over. "Those who kill are children should be risking their own skin," she said.

She even appeared on the Israeli radio station "90FM," broadcast out of Tel Aviv, to attack "Islamic fundamentalism" and Qatari influence. "Entire neighborhoods in the [ghetto] suburbs are under the influence of fundamentalists," she claimed, before asserting that foreign money is adding to the problem, as is the increasing availability of guns. (She didn't detail the source of her allegations about the Qatari funders.)

By contrast, Sarkozy has -- with a notable exception -- performed like a convincing head of state in a time of crisis, which is something that has been rare during his term. In recent days, he has repeatedly spoken, with a grave voice, of France's "dignity" and its "national unity," something that could not be "fractured" by a lone killer. (Merah said his goal was to "bring France to its knees.") In short, Sarkozy has taken this opportunity to be presidential, for once.

Simultaneously, his political allies have relentlessly attacked his main opponent, the Socialist candidate François Hollande, with dubious assertions that he is exploiting the tragedy for political gain. Several accused Hollande of temporarily suspending his presidential campaign, while effectively campaigning via appearances among the mourners. (Exactly the same could be said about Sarkozy, although his presidential role gives him a more formal justification for speaking out.)

Sarkozy has also re-enforced his reputation for deftly driving debates on hot-button issues. On March 22, he promised (constitutionally questionable) legislation that would make it illegal to take part in radical Islamic indoctrination or even to consult websites with extremist rhetoric. Regardless of whether or not this legislation is ever enacted, it is likely to help him with voters on the fence between him and Le Pen, a group he badly needs to have any chance at re-election.

As attention gradually shifts back to the formal presidential campaign, polls show that between Merah's first murder and his death, Sarkozy has jumped into the lead, at least in the 10-candidate first round of voting. The latest has the president garnering 30 percent support, with Holland taking in 28 percent. While the incumbent's supporters are portraying this as a victory in itself, Hollande continues to enjoy an 8 to 10 percent lead in a theoretical run-off with Sarkozy in a number of surveys.

Sarkozy, whose character is anything but soothing, could very well overplay his hand, or remind people of his past failures. The notoriously hardworking president has, at times, seemed to be remarkably tired, which might explain his occasional flashes of stunningly off-key communications in recent weeks. The most disturbing recent example came when he told children at a Jewish school in Paris on March 20 that the attack could just as easily have occurred at their school, to them.

Yet the dramatic climax to the manhunt for a killer who nabbed the attention of the country is almost certain to give Sarkozy an additional short-term electoral bounce, and security is clearly a rising issue for the French, as polls will show in the coming days.

But a month can be an eternity in the final stretch of a presidential campaign. The investigations and actions of French authorities are already receiving intense scrutiny, especially around the question of whether they should have caught Merah before the school massacre. (He was tracked down thanks to an online data trail that he had left six days earlier.)

There are certain to be other questions. For one, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Merah was on the FBI terrorist watch list since soon after he was arrested in Afghanistan in 2010. French authorities have admitted that they knew about his past, including his Afghanistan and Pakistan visits, and that they had watched him. (Merah also had run-ins with French police.) So why would he merit being persona non grata in the United States, but not merit greater scrutiny in France? This has all the hallmarks of a brewing inquiry.

In the end, though, barring further violence or threats, the French may well conclude a month from now that the most threatening issues are once again much closer to home: the economy, purchasing power, employment. Right now, though, these seem about as exciting as Hollande himself. But those are the issues that Hollande was winning on, and unless Sarkozy, a former interior minister, can keep the debate squarely on the security front until election day, he may have a very difficult time holding on to his presidential moment.

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Next Year in Tripoli

Will my people -- the Jews of Libya -- ever be able to go home? 

I am a Jew from Libya.

Although my family and I were forced to flee Libya for Rome after the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I still consider myself to be a proud Jew, a proud Libyan, and a proud Italian. I have been back four times since 1967, but have been forced to leave each time. Although much time has passed, I still feel the freshness of Tripoli's air and its special light: hot, but not blinding. I want to feel that light again -- but in a stable Libya, a country that affirms freedom, justice, and the rule of law, protects freedom of religion for all its people, and honors its Jewish heritage.

Libya's revolution represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring back the Jewish community into my homeland's social fabric. As I discovered firsthand, however, when a mob prevented my efforts to rebuild Tripoli's synagogue by shouting anti-Semitic slogans, the hateful attitudes that Muammar al-Qaddafi was only too happy to encourage will not disappear overnight. In this post-Qaddafi era, I hope that Libya's new leaders will embrace needed change and that stories like mine will help make that happen.

The history of Libya's Jews stretches back to the third century B.C., through the 1492 Jewish expulsion from Spain, and up to the 20th century. My community saw Romans, Ottomans, and Italians come and go. For hundreds of years, we coexisted peacefully with Libyan Muslims, despite the tensions wrought by political upheaval. As recently as 1931, Libya's Jewish community of about 24,500 people represented 4 percent of the country's population. (By comparison, the U.S. Jewish community, the largest in the Diaspora today, is only 2 percent of the U.S. population.)

But the wars of the 20th century decimated our community. The trouble began in 1938, when a Nazi-inspired racial law against Jews led to heightened persecution, and hundreds of Libyan Jews were killed in riots during that period. By 1949, many Jews had been forced to leave after Libyans rioted again in reaction to the establishment of Israel. By 1969, with Qaddafi in power, only about 100 Jews remained. At that time, Qaddafi confiscated the assets and possessions of all Libyan Jews, including those who had left in 1967 and earlier, and declared that Jews could not return or renew their passports.

My family built a new life in Rome, but I never forgot where I came from nor abandoned my dream to return. In 2002, I was the first Jew to be given permission to return to visit my aunt, Rina Debach. Upon finally being allowed to leave in 2003, she joined our family in Rome, where she died 40 days later. She was the last Jew to leave Libya, and her departure marked the end of more than two millennia of continuous Jewish presence there. While not one Jew lives in Libya today, the original Diaspora population of 38,000 has grown to about 200,000 people who reside largely in Israel and Italy.

In the years since, I have made several trips to Libya as part of reconstruction and reconciliation efforts on behalf of the Libyan Jewish community, acting as a representative for the World Organization of Libyan Jews (WOLJ). In 2007, I was invited back by the Libyan government because of my support for normalized Libyan-U.S. relations. After volunteering at the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, I began trying to restore Tripoli's Dar Bishi Synagogue, which dates from the late 1920s but has deteriorated badly over time. The Qaddafi regime ultimately made my work impossible: I was abruptly detained, interrogated, and, without any reason or explanation, dispossessed of all my belongings and deported.

I met Qaddafi when he visited Rome in June 2009 and invited the Libyan Jewish community to meet with him on Shabbat, in a large tent he had erected in a city park. Scheduling the meeting for that day signaled to us that his goal was mostly focused on public relations. While most members of the community could not attend because it was the Sabbath, I was there in my traditional Libyan robe with a Jewish star at my neck.

Speaking in Italian, I pressed him on opening the Dar Bishi Synagogue. While I had little to hope for, given his detached manner and empty promises, I was pleased to discover that the meeting somehow helped me start shedding my fears and gain back some of the dignity I had felt I lost as a refugee: Qaddafi could no longer harm me, and my Libyan, Jewish, and Italian identities gave me strength.

During my last trip to Libya in the spring of 2011, I joined the anti-Qaddafi rebels by volunteering again at the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, where I trained the rebels to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was in the mountains north of Tripoli a few months later, working on PTSD with Amazigh Berbers. Like most Libyans, their suffering resulted not only from the current conflict, but also from 42 years of calamities caused by the dictatorship. What they desperately needed was to overcome their fears and find that they could hope again -- hope for a better life in freedom.

After Tripoli was liberated, I once again tried cleaning up the Dar Bishi Synagogue. Even though I had received permission from the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the local government to undertake this work, a mob gathered, shouting that "there is no place for Jews in Libya" and carrying signs in both Arabic and Hebrew to make sure, I suppose, that I got the message. Once again, I had to leave. But this time I left with dignity, not fear: I left on the day of my choice and on my own terms. I wanted to signal to the NTC that I would work with it to restore calm and that it needed to work with me. And in so doing, I found more strength.

Despite all these challenges, I still have hope. I will continue to do what I can so that the Jewish presence in Libya is not forgotten and Jews, as well as all minorities, can reclaim their rightful place in Libya. I know that this will take time. Tripoli's new leadership faces enormous challenges, such as building the essential elements of government and civil life and bridging ethnic and regional divides. But part of this effort must include preserving and protecting Libya's few remaining Jewish heritage sites. I also urge the NTC and similar bodies to recognize and meet with the WOLJ as the legitimate representative of the Libyan Jewish community.

Hope often needs help. The international community must also act. The United States and its NATO allies played a pivotal role in helping the Libyan people achieve freedom, and now they can help steer the new government toward a path of justice and reconciliation. These countries must send a message to the NTC and other Libyan leaders that they can demonstrate their seriousness about democracy and human rights by breaking with Libya's past and welcoming back Jews and other minorities. It is a win-win proposition for all interested in Libya's development and success.

U.S. citizens can also help by urging President Barack Obama's administration to remain true to its values. The White House must not only focus on economic and political development, but also human rights. As we so often have seen, the way countries treat their minorities signals how they will behave toward their neighbors and the world.

A peaceful, stable Libya is most likely to be realized if it is pluralistic, open, and tolerant. Libya must become a free, just, and democratic country, grounded in the rule of law, in which all of Libya's minorities -- including those Jews forced to flee -- are welcomed back into the Libyan family. We can make a difference at this critical juncture, before the cement dries, by making a mark for democracy, human rights, and religious pluralism, so that Libya becomes a model for reconciliation and tolerance.

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