Thursday, March 22, 2012


Like all of you, I’ve been glued to the news this past week as the drama in Toulouse has unfolded day by day. As I write this, in fact, CNN has just announced that the police have confirmed the death of Mohammed Merah, the man who is said to have confessed personally to seven murders over these last two weeks, including the slaying of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two children Aryeh and Gabriel (ages six and three), Miriam Monsonego (age eight), Imad Ibn-Ziatan (age thirty, a French paratrooper), Abel Chennouf (age twenty-five, a corporal in the French army), and Mohamed Legouad (age twenty-four, a French army private). To say that each death was a tragedy is almost to say nothing at all because each of these young people—young soldiers serving in the defense of their country, innocent children on their way into school for what was to have been a normal school day, a rabbi devoting his life to the instruction of Jewish children—each of them embodied unlimited potential to do good in the world. Each had a future. Each had the potential to change the world. Now, of course, none will. Even their murderer, age twenty-three, is dead. And his death too is a tragedy—a tragedy because, instead of succumbing to the rage-filled hatred apparently instilled in him by his Al Qaeda handlers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he too could have had a future. He was a citizen of France, a pluralistic democracy. He was thus a heir, at least in theory, to French culture, to French learning, to the sense of égalité and fraternité that have characterized French society at its most enlightened since, well, the Enlightenment. He will have none of that now. Nor, obviously, will he have a chance to be presumed innocent before being convicted of his crimes and sentenced, as he surely would have been, to life in prison, thus even in defeat sending a valuable lesson to his co-citizens that mindless violence leads only to perdition, never to paradise.

Now, of course, none of that is to be. Rabbi Sandler will teach no more classes. His little boys will not grow to adulthood, nor will little Miriam. The three soldiers, all cut down in the prime of life by a fanatic who found it objectionable for French citizens to serve the French people in the French armed forces because of their ethnic origins outside of France, will serve no longer. And the assassin too will have no future, no possibility of redemption, no chance to seek atonement or repentance. The world, of course, will keep spinning. Toulouse, a provincial city that not one American in a thousand could have found easily on a map until earlier this week, will return to normal. Even Jewish life in that place will resume, diminished yet resilient, as the Ozar Hatorah school re-opens, as a new teacher is quietly hired to replace Rabbi Sandler, as the children’s cubbies are without drama or ceremony simply re-assigned to other children for their future use. In their barracks, the soldiers’ lockers too will be re-assigned. In the end, they will all simply vanish from the stage to be remembered vaguely as yet more victims of mindless terror. I myself don’t recall the names of the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were murdered in Mumbai in 2008. Or the name of the poor woman murdered at the Seattle JCC in 2006. (Just for the record , they were Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, and Pamela Waechter. But I had to look that up, which I just did.)

It is natural to respond to the deaths of children differently than to the deaths of adults. And it is also natural to respond to the death of unarmed civilians differently than to the deaths of soldiers. But the key for us to remember is that these seven, a group of individuals unknown to each other in life, have somehow been linked permanently to each other in death. And I would like to consider what they have to say to the world not as individuals, but as a group formed in death, as people who would almost never have met had they lived yet who have ended up linked to each other both posthumously and permanently. What Rabbi Sandler would have made of Corporal Chennouf, or vice versa, I have no idea. Whether under other circumstances they could have befriended each other, I also do not know. At best, it would have been unlikely. But these unanswerable questions are not what I want to write about today.

The dead in Toulouse are, by any measure, an odd group: four Jews and three Muslims; two Franco-Israelis and five French citizens with no other passports or allegiances; four men, two boys, and a girl; a rabbi, three soldiers, and three schoolchildren. Together, they can serve to remind us that Muslims are as often the victims of terror as its perpetrators, and that the mindset of the terrorist is nowhere nearly as meaningfully rooted in political philosophy or in religion as in rage, in a kind of dementia so severe that even the murder of a little girl at point blank range is deemed not only justifiable but reasonable, even virtuous. Although they would surely bristle at the comparison, the terrorists of the world, in this like all true fanatics, have more in common with each other than with the more reasonable elements within their own religious or ethnic groups. That being the case, it is folly, I believe, to try to reason rationally with people who have embraced terror as a valid means of political self-expression, and for the same reasons that it is pointless to attempt to argue rationally with irrational people. The whole concept of being irrational is that you don’t see things rationally! And the whole concept behind the worldview that countenances the murder of children to make some vague point about your nation’s politics or some other nation’s policies or practices is no less bizarre. In other words, to describe the murder of Miriam Monsonego as a valid response to Israel’s insistence that the Hamas terrorists who control Gaza be inhibited in their ability to send missiles against Israel’s southern towns and villages is to abandon rational discourse and move into the realm of true craziness. That Nicolas Sarkozy said as much the other evening was heartening. But that there are quarters in the world in which Mohamed Merah will be celebrated as a martyr also goes without saying and that is not heartening at all.

We should not respond to violent irrationality by mouthing our own set of irrational platitudes. The Mohamed Merahs of this world are not going to calm down and become rational because we would like them to. Al-Qaeda is not going to morph into a political party worthy of participation in the democratic process, and neither is Hamas or Hezbollah. To confuse the kind of mindless rage that yields incidents like this week’s in Toulouse with the kind of dissent that is healthy for any democracy and crucial for its wellbeing is as pointless as it is outrageous. To descend so far into the pit of moral relativism so as not to be able to distinguish between reasonable military action taken in defense of one’s own country and violent terrorism undertaken with no specific goal in mind other than the murder of innocents is to come perilously close to abandoning moral thinking entirely.

And yet the world dithers. No less a personality than the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, came perilously close the other day to equating the murder of Rabbi Sandler’s children with the plight of the children of Gaza. Back-pedaling furiously, she tried (and is apparently still trying, although only semi-successfully) to undo the damage. But the remark itself was and is still out there, as is its raw, unpalatable implication that when Hamas terrorists locate their missile launchers in civilian neighborhoods and use local children as shields, the fate of those children is no less the fault of Israel than the death of the children in Toulouse. To decry that kind of skewered parallelism is merely to state the obvious. But I wonder how many people out there secretly agree with High Representative Ashton’s comments even as she labored to take them back.

Our job, other than making even more secure our schools and our synagogues in the wake of the Toulouse massacre, is to remind the world that once a forest fire is raging it becomes impossible to save any particular tree. And similarly will the world never be safe or secure until the notion of terrorism itself is made such anathema that no one will want to be labelled a terrorist. We have all become inured to the problem, so used to the regular flair-ups of unprovoked violence against innocent civilians that even 9/11 seems different from Madrid and London (and Mumbai and Buenos Aires and Seattle and now Toulouse, plus countless other sites of terrorist murder inside and outside of Israel) only in terms of the magnitude, scope, and intensity of the disaster. Is it imaginable, even remotely, that a time could come when the murder of innocents ceases to serve as the ultimate political statement? I’d like to think so. I actually have to think so. Because if I stopped thinking so, then I also would be obliged to abandon my belief in the ultimate redeemability of the world. And that, being the cornerstone of my faith, is not something I am prepared to give up lightly. Or at all, actually. The challenge, therefore, is not to wonder whether the peoples of the world could ever renounce mindless violence and live together in peace, but to ask ourselves what exactly it is we ourselves are doing to bring the world to the messianic moment, to the edge of redemption. And if the answer to that question is unsatisfying, then the proper response—and particularly as Jewish people everywhere prepare to celebrate the ultimate Festival of Freedom in just a few weeks’ time—is to see the tragedy in Toulouse as a burden we must all share: the perpetrator because he committed an unspeakable crime, his handlers in Pakistan and Afghanistan because they inspired incomprehensible villainy, and the rest of us because we have too easily made our peace with living in an unredeemed world.

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