Crying lone wolf in Toulouse killings

One of the more tragic religion news stories of recent weeks has been the murder of three Jewish children and a rabbi at a school in Toulouse, France. The shooting earlier this week was quickly linked to the killing of French paratroopers a week prior. Some of the journalism surrounding these events has been great. I particularly liked this Associated Press piece on how people are grieving the deaths. It does a great job of weaving religious practice into a brief update. I also loved this CNN Belief blog piece on why the dead were flown to Israel for burials. It covers everything fro the scriptural basis to the practice to the costs of same. A great piece.

Unfortunately, not all of the stories have handled the religion element as well. Mostly that has to do with the religion of the accused shooter.

First, there was trouble with how French leaders and the media characterized the shooting. There’s pretty much no other way to say this than that the media and the political establishment suspected that the shooter came from a particular community. Which community? Well: “The massive police manhunt is focusing on far right extremists; including three former soldiers,” according to one report.

If you haven’t heard, these suspicions didn’t hold up as French police staked out the home of a Muslim terrorist they now suspect was the shooter. (He has since died.) Now, whether the French political and police establishment were unwise in their speculation is not an issue for us to address. Our interest is only in how the media handled this speculation. I don’t know how much to blame the media for running with what the police said.

On the one hand, you don’t want a media that just blindly accepts what a police force is saying (and for a great example of why you might look at the case in Florida involving the shooting of Trayvon Martin). On the other hand, you can’t blame the media for simply reporting what the French political leaders are saying.

But some media went way beyond just reporting what others were saying into rampant speculation and navel-gazing about what the murders meant. For a taste of how this looked across the pond, you can check out this Telegraph piece that wonders whether the “far-right” created a “climate” that “triggered the acts.”

The New York Times yesterday morning ran a piece headlined Killings Could Stall Election’s Nationalist Turn. The subhead was “In the middle of a heated presidential race, shootings at a Jewish school have raised new questions about the tone of a debate about what it is to be French.”

Here’s a sample:

But the political debate around the shootings, and whether the deaths of an instructor and three young children were somehow inspired by anti-immigrant political talk, is likely to continue — both as a weapon in the presidential campaign and as a more general soul-searching about the nature of France.

No one is suggesting that the French presidential campaign inspired a serial killer to put a bullet in the head of an 8-year-old Jewish girl. The candidates largely suspended their campaigning and uniformly condemned the killings, as well as the murders of three French soldiers — two Muslims and a black man — apparently by the same man…

In some ways, the debate here is similar to that in Norway after Anders Behring Breivik killed dozens of young campers in cold blood in July. Were his actions encouraged in some way by too harsh a debate in Norway about immigrants and foreigners, or were they the acts of a madman who lived in a fantasy world and could have been from anywhere?

“No one” is suggesting that the political campaign inspired the killer except for the reporter himself a few paragraphs later, I guess.

What’s really weird about this piece is that it was in yesterday’s New York Times on page A4. Now, my two-year-old daughter kept me up all night on Tuesday night. And I do mean all night. So I was up when the news broke about the actual identity of the alleged shooter. While I can’t remember exactly when the news broke that the suspect was actually a Muslim terrorist, it was hours before people first read the paper with their morning coffee — but hours after it went to press. This happens sometimes. But it’s an excellent reminder of why it’s generally wiser to wait for the facts before telling readers what to think about them.

In fact, the email announcing headlines from the day’s paper had this story right next to one about the raid. Just too late to change the paper. So right next to the headline mentioned above was this one: “ French Police Raid Toulouse House for School Shooting Suspect: Elite police raided a house in Toulouse early Wednesday in pursuit of a man claiming ties to Al Qaeda and suspected in the killings this week at a Jewish school.”

If the early suspicions of the politicians and media were correct, this introspective look at the cold-blooded murderer of children would be within bounds. But what’s weird is that the media were so wrong, and then doubled down on things in the wrong direction.

It showed a bit of historical ignorance to rule out a Muslim shooter simply because some of the victims were Muslim. How many Muslims must be killed by other Muslims before the media learn that this is not an infrequent occurrence? In fact, Muslim terrorists may target Muslims more than Christians or Jews.

You’d hope the media would know enough about world events or historical events to know that the targeting of Muslims wouldn’t exactly be beyond the modus operandi of various terrorist groups.

It’s also important that reporters show restraint before the facts are known. It’s one thing to report that the police are focusing their manhunt in one direction, but entirely another to indict the wrong segment of society for the act. Missing the possibility of an Islamist connection isn’t great but neither was the rush to judge nationalists for the murders. In this case, they displayed multiple biases.

Finally, once the alleged shooter is identified not only as someone who is not a nationalist but, rather, someone with ties to Muslim terrorist organizations, it’s OK to mention the religious views that may be in play. This Bloomberg story alludes to those views without spelling it out. This CNN story says we’re dealing with a jihadist but doesn’t explain anything about the suspect’s religious views, even when discussing the specific terrorist organization he was part of in France. A reader wrote in:

I have just listened to the main evening bulletin (18.00) here in the UK on BBC Radio 4, which had an item about the identification of a suspect for the recent atrocities in France – what was interesting was that his religion was not mentioned at all – despite him having probably been involved with the Taliban. I thought this was interesting, particularly in comparison with the Jewishness of some of his victims, whose religion was mentioned at every turn.

Now, it can’t be repeated enough that when news is breaking, you see many false reports. You really need to double check everything. (For instance, Reuters and others ran with an incorrect report that the alleged shooter was in an Afghanistan prison for a time before being broken out by the Taliban.) But as quickly as some rushed to indict whole sectors of society for the shootings, others are now rushing to do the opposite or otherwise minimize the killings. Which means we’re in the “lone wolf” stage of reporting, which almost seems mandatory for stories about Islamic terrorists. Here’s Spiegel:

A man like Mohammed Merah is Western law enforcement’s worst nightmare. The suspected perpetrator of the Toulouse attacks fits into the “lone wolf” category of terrorist. Such individuals claim to be part of organizations like al-Qaida but act on their own initiative — making them hard to detect before they act.

The wolf language is so odd to use when dealing with a decentralized and internet-fueled terrorist operation. There’s no doubt that some people act alone. But there’s also no doubt that one doesn’t need to go to Afghanistan — as this “lone wolf” did a few times — to be part of a larger operation. So it reminds me of crying wolf. When the media keep reporting that “lone wolf” language about so many Muslim terrorists — only to later see those reports debunked, it causes a breakdown in trust with the reader. Maybe we don’t have much information now — other than that the man claims links to larger national and international terrorist organizations and made trips to Afghanistan. But that information alone means we should be humble about what we’re reporting.

We’re also seeing reports along the lines of “backlash fears,” such as this piece from AFP.

Not all reports are so predictable or obfuscatory. This Toronto Star piece manages to get the details of the situation out there while showing restraint.

Lone wolf image via Shutterstock.

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  • sari

    I agree with everything you said here, Mollie, particularly the rush to judgment before the facts rolled in -and- the perpetuation of journalistic stereotypes when writing about Muslim terrorists.

    Thoughts on the first two articles, which you felt did a great job on the religious aspects of Jewish grieving. The first gave impressions, the shock people are feeling right now, but it did not address religious custom. I felt great kinship with the mother who, like B’ruriah, bowed to G-d’s will, but I saw people’s reactions as running the same gamut they’d run elsewhere: anger, resignation, sorrow, acceptance of Divine decree -and- the necessity to care for those who remain. None of these are unique to Jews or Judaism, but they make a nice human interest story.

    Perhaps the biggest omissions were the rush to burial, which should seem familiar to Muslims but strange to most Christians, and shiva, the seven day mourning period.

    According to the halakhah, the body is wrapped in a shroud and buried, so that it may return to the earth. In those municipalities which require a casket, the shrouded body may be buried in a plain, unadorned wood box with holes drilled in the bottom to let in the elements. The box may have no metal (used for warfare), and is usually held together with wooden pegs.

    The Rabbis, then and now, argued against ostentation, but the reason we use “Jewish” caskets is to ensure the above.

    No effort is made to delay decomposition, either with the coffin, which itself will decompose, or by embalming, which is forbidden. No clothing excepting the shroud and a man’s prayer shawl (tallis), no make-up.

    There are no viewings and never an open casket. A person of great stature may lay in state (e.g., Yitzchak Rabin), but burial within 24 hours is more typical. All attention is directed to the deceased until the end of the funeral, when it is redirected towards the mourners during Shiva (the seven day mourning period), Shloshim (thirty days after burial, with fewer restrictions). The formal period ends here except for parents, which lasts for a year. Mourners must say the Mourner’s Kaddish at every service (3 x day) with a minyan (quorum of ten–men in more observant circles, mixed gender in less) for the entire period. Minyans are typically brought to the mourners house for the Shiva period.

    No mention was made of covering mirrors throughout the house.

    Black is not required and is frowned on by some.

    Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is considered to be the holiest place on earth. While many pay a premium to be buried on Har Zeitim, the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple in Jerusalem, many are happy just to be buried in Israel. In the case of terror victims, I’d lay money that the community helps defray costs. That would be an interesting if insensitive question for a reporter to ask.

  • Mollie

    Just want to point out that there is plenty of room for introspection — even on media coverage itself — as it relates to this shooting.

    This Commentary story made me think about how the AP has been covering NYPD’s Muslim terrorist surveillance program.

    This Ynet story made me think about French media perpetuation of an incorrect story about a Palestinian child (actually killed in a car accident in 2006) as a victim of Israel attacks this year.

  • carl

    When a crime like this occurs, journalists are pre-disposed to believe that it must have been committed by members of certain groups. In fact, they want the guilty party to be found associated with those certain groups because it confirms their view of ther world. So when the story develops as expected, they will run without restraint. It’s much harder to stop and examine your predispositions when everything is proceeding just as you have forseen.

    Confir this story with the Norweigen shooting. In that case, the killer was quickly identified as a ‘born-again right-wing Christian.’ That’s what the press expected. That’s what they reported. I suspect most people who didn’t take the time to read his actual writings still believe it. The expectation fit the narrative, and eventually the expectation became the narrative.

    It’s a common human failing, of course. We are all subject to seeing what we expect to see – what we want to see. But it wouldn’t be so bad if journalism wasn’t so monolithic in its expectations. If the initial reports about the killer had been contrary to journalistic expectation thay would have responded with skepticism instead of enthusiam. That would have made a difference in how the story was reported.


  • Jeff

    I’m surprised the MSM isn’t saying that these killings in France are part of the GOP’s effort to limit women’s “reproductive rights” and damage their “health.”

  • Bill

    I read the story in yesterday’s Times and had the same reaction about the reporter jumping to conclusions.
    I remember the coverage of the Beltway sniper some years ago. As I recall, an FBI profiler said the killer was likely a middle-age white man who likes guns and hunting, was right-wing politically and had not had previous trouble with the police. The press dutifully reported this; it fit the profile of a person the WaPo and Montgomery Co, MD Police Chief Moose believed would do such things. Police were looking for a white man in a white van. I recall that the DC Police Chief, a black man, did not buy this.

    As it turned out, it was a black man named John Muhammed and a teenage boy. The story had little to do with race and less to do with religion. What mattered was that the killers were a vicious, angry man and a kid adrift with no moral compass. The point is that the press ran with a story that fit the expected narrative line.

    Sari, thanks for filling in more of the details about the burials and the beliefs behind them.

  • Tragic Christian

    Carl is absolutely correct here. The media will always point right whenever a senseless politically-tinged killing occurs — it’s a knee-jerk reaction.

    We all remember that they practically said Sarah Palin was personally pumping bullets into Gabrielle Giffords, or was responsible … somehow ….

    But I also remember the old guy who shot up the Holocaust Museum and killed a guard — he was dismissed as a right-winger, despite the fact that next on his kill list was the local office of Fox News.

    Or the Times Square bomber, whom Mayor Bloomberg speculated hated Obamacare.

    Or the man who drilled a plane into the IRS building in Texas — a right-winger for sure, despite the manifesto where he railed against George W. Bush and the capitalist system.

    Heck, you can still read how it was a “right wing climate of hate” in Dallas that killed John Kennedy, despite the fact that the actual triggerman was a Cuba-loving Communist who defected to Russia.

    The human mind doesn’t like gaps — it rushes to fill them in. So if there are still unknowns to the story, they tend to get filled in with what you “know” already is true.

  • Jeff

    Tragic Christian,

    Robert F. Kennedy worked for Joseph McCarthy. John F. Kennedy voted not to censure Joseph McCarthy. John F. Kennedy tried to overthrown the Communist government of Cuba, then tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, then brought us to the brink of nuclear war with The Soviet Union, then laid the groundwork for the Vietnam War. But John F. Kennedy was killed not by the leftist defector to the Soviet Union Lee Harvey Oswald, but by the “climate” in Dallas, Texas or in “flyover country” as a whole, thereby forestalling the advent of the left-liberal utopia that would otherwise have manifested itself on November 23, 1963.

    The presence of this kind of rubbish not only in popular consciousness but in “history” books today is part of why we have to stand up to the MSM, which is intent on introducing yet more rubbish like this into the public discourse every day.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The main problems is the reactions seems to be a failure to ask two questions, either by journalists or politicians.

    1- Were the soldier killings related to the ethnicity of the soldiers, or an expression of dislike towards France itself. In a country that prides itself on ignoring the ethnicity of government employees as much as France does it is surprising that this question was not asked.

    2- Were the Muslim soldiers killed because they were Muslims who desrerted Islam by siding with a “Western” power and serving in the forces of that government?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    If media personnel were more balanced politically and more informed on religions, then there might have been some great background stories like sari and tragic Christian put in comments here.

  • sari

    For those who are interested, this bare bones article also contains a short video with a description of the burials. The commentator mentions that the deceased are wrapped in shrouds and one can see the shrouded bodies carried on what look like stretchers. One can also catch a glimpse of people taking turns to help fill in the grave. Custom is that people file by the grave and put in a bit of soil as they pass.