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On the Reaction to the Toulouse Murders

by Jeff Howard

A Tragic Surprise

When the news was released that the murderer of Jewish children in Toulouse was a self-proclaimed avenger of Palestinians, rather than a far-right xenophobic nationalist, the hearts of many on the political left across Europe sank. It is natural to criticize that reaction; “murder is murder”, no matter who does it, and it is shameful to exploit tragedies in order to make one’s political adversaries look bad. But there is something more complicated, and more ethically reputable, going on in the left’s reaction than its opponents have appreciated.

Here’s what I mean. When evil actions are performed, part (indeed most) of their evil consists in the intrinsic wrong involved in treating human beings in a certain, deeply objectionable fashion. But another part of actions’ evil hinges on their contribution to the perpetuation of particular pernicious attitudes and trends. To illustrate the point, imagine – as unpleasant as this philosophical exercise may be – a pair of racially motivated murders in a hypothetical society marked by persistent racial conflict.

 This unspeakable tragedy would have cooled the French consciousness, restoring a sense of civility to the debate.

The murders are identical in every respect, with one crucial exception. In the first, the murderer kills his victim in the privacy of his own home, never to be discovered. But in the second case, he murders him in front of a large group of children who share the race of the victim, and who by witnessing such an act are enraged and thereby predisposed to buy into the horrid prejudices of their grandparents. The former murder is no less a murder than the first – they are both equally and gut-wrenchingly deplorable as murders – but the latter also serves as a contribution to a socially poisonous and divisive mentality in the way the former does not.

That is the key to understanding the character of the reaction this week. Had Mohammed Merah been a xenophobic nationalist, the thinking goes, this unspeakable tragedy would have cooled the French consciousness, restoring a sense of civility to the debate and undermining the efforts by Marine le Pen – and, to some extent, Nicolas Sarkozy – to use tensions over immigration, cultural assimilation, and Islam to beat the drums of conflict and scare up precious electoral support in the run up to the first round of voting in April. That would not, of course, have made the murders a good thing, and anyone who thinks it would is morally insane; that many innocent lives might later be better respected by losing a few innocent lives now does not cut moral ice, so to speak, in a republic predicated on the fundamental dignity and equality of every individual.

The point remains: if we hear that someone has committed evil, there is nothing incoherent or objectionable about crossing our fingers as we wait for further news – about hoping that the evil is not the kind of evil that can be expected only to beget even more harm.

The Repercussion

But it was that kind of evil. Not only do incidents like these undermine the peaceful work pursued by law-abiding Palestinians; they inflame the passions undergirding xenophobic nationalism and promise only to drive a greater wedge between old and new French communities. And worst of all, they provide populist leaders with the crucial “I told you so” premise of the most damning kind of argument they can marshal: not an argument directed at their dyed-in-the-wool, committed supporters, but an argument directed at their reluctant supporters. Incidents like these provide the enemies of genuine liberal democracy, such as Marine Le Pen, with precisely the justificatory ammunition they need to convince reluctant supporters to jettison their reluctance – to stop dithering and realize that “defending Western civilization” cannot wait. We can only speculate whether Merah’s survival would have fanned these flames or abated them. But the silence left by his demise has already been filled by Le Pen, who has used his death to stir up nerves about the “green fascism” she contends is imperiling France. It is a sign of things to come.

Cross your fingers that I’m wrong.


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