Notes From the Margins…

Murder in Toulouse

  • March 22, 2012
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Yesterday evening I was leaving the swimming pool when a young girl came running past me in the corridor.  She looked not much older than Myriam Monsenego, the young girl executed by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse on Monday, apparently because he wanted ‘revenge for Palestinian children.’

Anyone who would extinguish a child’s life in this way is worthy only of the most universal outrage and contempt.  It is too early to know what led this self-styled mujahid really carried out this atrocious crime on the instructions of al Qaeda in order to ‘bring France to its knees’ or whether he was a sociopathic misfit seeking some kind of rancid glory.

The two things are not incompatible.    Al Qaeda operatives have demonstrated time and time again a propensity for murder and violence that is unconstrained by any moral or ethical constraints, whether directed against Jews, Americans, Christians, Shi’a ‘heretics’, or Muslims.

Killing is in fact the only thing that al Qaeda does well, and over the years it has been able to recruit a seemingly endless number of men like Merah who are willing to do it.

Like the ‘shoebomber’ Richard Reid, the ‘underpants bomber’ and the Madrid train bombers,  Merah appears to fit a similar profile of angry, disaffected and confused men with low intelligence, often with a history of petty criminality and a propensity for haram pleasures such as drugs and nightclubs, followed by a rapid conversion/radicalisation process that culminates in ‘heroic’ murder.

Merah’s lawyer, who defended him in some of his previous convictions has spoken of his “religious engagement, an increasing hatred against the values of a democratic society and a desire to impose what he believes is truth.”

The Palestinians do not need people like Mohammed Merah to advance their cause and did not ask for his participation.  On the contrary,  his actions will inevitably be used against them and will provide new justifications for Israeli intransigence and violence.    Never mind that the Palestine Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has declared

“Our people and children condemn with the strongest words possible this criminal terrorism…No Palestinian child can accept crimes against innocent lives…it is time for those criminals to stop using Palestine as the reason for their terrorist acts.”

Too many people who will not listen to that, and have already begun to  use Merah’s crimes to attack the Palestinians and their supporters, as Melanie Phillips did in typically unhinged fashion in the Mail yesterday, when she accused the media and “western progressives of trying to “sanitize Muslim genocidal terrorism”.    Yesterday Robert Spencer’s Islamophobic Jihad Watch website, claimed  that Merah “wanted revenge for fictional atrocities, trumped up by the Palestinian propaganda machine.”

Merah’s crimes will also do nothing but harm to Muslims, both inside and outside France, and will provide grist to the mill of those who seek to paint all Muslims, and Islam itself, as inherently and irredeemably barbaric and extremist.

Both Phillips and Jihad Watch have engaged in what can only be described as unseemly gloating at the suspicions floated in the media before yesterday’s siege began that the murders were carried out by a neo-Nazi or ‘another Anders Breivik’.

But Merah and Breivik are not that entirely dissimilar.   Tactically, they both follow the principle of ‘leaderless resistance’ whereby individuals and small groups carry out acts of violence without the need for a hierarchical organizational structure.

Both of them were motivated by pathological hatred of a particular social or religious group.   Both constructed – or made use of – a fantasy version of violence that enabled them to dehumanize even their most helpless and defenceless victims,  and present their actions as legitimate and even  heroic, at least in their own eyes.

Breivik’s murders were an extreme manifestation of racist anti-immigrant politics that depict European Muslims as cultural and religious invaders, engaged in a collective to transform Europe into an Islamic colony.   His ’cause’ was a lie and a paranoid delusion.

Al Qaeda, on the other hand,  is a parasitical formation that feeds on very real political oppression and injustice, and draws its ability to renew itself and recruit new operatives through the various wars, conflicts and tyrannies in the Muslim world, which it seeks to incorporate into its reactionary Salafist agenda.

Al Qaeda justifies its atrocities with a primitive moral logic which can be summed up as  “you did this to my people, so I can do whatever I like to yours” – a philosophy that Osama bin Laden expressed on numerous occasions before he was executed according to a code of ‘justice’ that was no less flawed than his.

This question of legitimacy is crucial.  It’s not that Merah’s crimes are in any way legitimate, but such crimes do not spring out of nowhere.  Israel does kill Palestinians – both adults and children – with complete impunity, whatever Melanie Phillips and Jihad Watch might say.   And when it does,  it is secure in the knowledge that its powerful protectors will find excuses for such behaviour or block attempts to hold it to account.

The treatment of the Palestinians is a gross injustice.   And as long as this situation persists, there will be those – whatever their individual psychological inclinations and motivations – who will use it as a pretext and justification for barbaric tit-for-tat acts of ‘revenge’.

In effect, the murders in Toulouse are part of a continuum of violence, that includes the Gaza strip, drone strikes in the Pakistan tribal areas, a war in Afghanistan that has descended into routine atrocity, Iraq and Syria.  In the same week that Merah began his murder spree, a US Marine – or group of Marines – murdered 16 Afghan villagers, nine of whom were children.

On the same day that Merah attacked a school in Toulouse, dozens of people were killed in coordinated attacks across Iraq on the anniversary of the 2003 invasion.  On 12 March Israeli missile strikes killed 20 Palestinians in Gaza, including a 12-year-old boy.

This is the world that we have created, a world in which violence is a routine instrument of statecraft by governments and their adversaries, a world of brutal wars and occupations and equally brutal insurgencies,  a world where  even the most elementary notions of justice and humanity are too often absent and where politics seems to operate at the moral level of the caveman.

This world of violence has also become a spectacle of cruelty, disseminated through rolling news and social media, and Merah had clearly supped deeply on this dank and toxic pool before carrying out the murders that are likely to be the only reason he is remembered for anything at all.

One woman has told a local  French newspaper that she warned police about him years ago, after he forced her son to watch  al-Qaeda videos in which “women were shot and hostages in Afghanistan were beheaded”.

We may well be revolted by Merah’s fascination with execution-porn,  but we can only hope that this disgusting episode will galvanize men and women of good will, whatever their background or religious beliefs,  to work towards a Europe in which bigotry, fanaticism and racism have no place.

And if we are ever to find a way out of this bloody cycle of war, revenge and murder, we need governments and politicians with the courage and the wisdom to look at the grievances on which organizations like al Qaeda feed, and where possible, take action to defuse them.

Because it isn’t just the sleep of reason that produces monsters, the absence of justice can produce the same result.

And faced – yet again – with actions that shame our species,   we must resume the long search for a world in which men like Merah will never be able to present themselves as heroes, and will never be anything more than killers.






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  1. Arun Kundnani

    22nd Mar 2012 - 11:06 am

    Thank you Matt – as usual, you have cut through all the empty words of mainstream coverage to make some essential points on a difficult subject.

    • Matt

      23rd Mar 2012 - 10:56 pm

      Thanks Arun. Much appreciated.

  2. jim

    23rd Mar 2012 - 3:54 pm

    Surely by now you should know that any ‘terrorist’ act that brings negative publicity to Muslims is usually the work of CIA/Mosaad/MI5. Or is that a topic you’re not allowed to entertain..?

    • Matt

      23rd Mar 2012 - 4:02 pm

      Sorry? Are you being sarcastic or do you really mean that?

  3. jim

    23rd Mar 2012 - 6:32 pm

    Nope.. I really mean it. You know with you being an expert on terrorism and all that surely you must have picked up on reports recently that the FBI was behind many acts of terrorism that were blamed on muslims. Indeed one clown who pranced around mosques trying to whip up members into a jihad frenzy, was reported by the mosque to the authorities.. and lo and behold he turned out to be an under cover FBI agent.

    • Matt

      23rd Mar 2012 - 6:54 pm

      OK I see. Well thanks for the ‘expert on terrorism’ bit. To be honest I tend to be suspicious of that label when I see it applied to others so I can’t accept it myself. Yes, I am aware that there have been a number of incidents in the States and the UK in which the lines between protagonist/asset/provocateur have been blurred, and some ‘terror plots’ have been allowed to germinate. I’m also aware that these events are routinely hyped to create the ‘enemy of civilisation’ scenario, but that doesn’t mean, in my opinion that ‘any’ such act is ‘usually the work of CIA/Mossad/M15’.

      It’s not that I’m ‘not allowed’ to entertain that topic, I just don’t believe it.

  4. jim

    23rd Mar 2012 - 10:40 pm

    Well, if you’re not the expert then I don’t know who is. Anyway, I’m relieved that you see the ‘hidden agenda’ behind the headlines. But rather puzzeled as to why you don’t write about it.

    • Matt

      23rd Mar 2012 - 10:55 pm

      I have written various pieces over the years about the manipulation of terrorism and terror plots and the agendas that I think such manipulation serves in my book, and here on this blog, eg. in the’terrorism’ section in the cloud categories.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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