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Dispatches from Toulouse: A reflection on the Merah attacks

Today the sun shines on Toulouse, shedding light upon a city which was darkened by more than the weather a few weeks ago. I find myself standing in the wake of two vicious of acts of terrorism, seven deaths and a 32 hour-long siege, not something I was expecting when parting for a year of studying abroad in France.

Mohamed Merah, 23, a French man of Algerian decent who had already been identified for monitoring by French Intelligence agents due to suspect terrorist activity including association with a Jihadist Salafist organization, successfully carried out 3 shootings, one of which included the deaths of two Jewish school children.

The following search for the killer was alleged to be France’s largest ever manhunt. Hundreds of armed police covered the south of France in a huge effort to find Merah, as well as armed police guarding Jewish and Muslim schools throughout the southern region. This campaign lead quickly to Merah’s location, although ultimately it succeeded by the discovery of an IP address registered to an apartment in the Croix Daurade area of Toulouse.

A stand-off between French RAID troops and Merah lasted over 24 hours and included various exchanges of gun fire, injuring two French police officers. During the night of the 21st March, whilst barricaded in his bathroom, Merah contacted news channel France24 claiming that he was responsible for the attacks, his motives being to redress the deaths of Palestinian children and retaliate against the French Army’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Towards the 32nd hour of the siege a final exchange of gunfire took place resulting in the death of Mohamed Merah. After jumping from a window still shooting, he was found dead on the ground from a bullet to the head.

With the presidential elections arriving shortly in May, candidates were quick to comment on the situation. The current president of the republic Nicholas Sarkozy was quoted calling him a ‘monster’ stating it was necessary to kill Merah because they ‘have had enough dead as it is’. Francois Hollande, the Socialist party candidate said that “the campaign against terrorism must continue without let-up”, whilst centrist Francois Bayrou said Merah’s acts were an indication of a ruptured French society where “stigmatisation” of cultures was growing as public figures exploited emotions to gain electoral votes.

The most striking aspect of the whole saga is not the unanswered questions that remain (how and where did Merah purchase military grade weapons ? Why if the French Intelligence agency were monitoring him did it take so long for them to find him? Why was there no apparent effort to take Merah alive?) but the utter indifference. This is not an indifference to the obviously tragic deaths of both soldiers and children; but an emotional indifference to violence. The young population of Toulouse when questioned, seem totally unaffected by the events of last week. Many said they ‘had not been scared at all’ very few had changed any part of their daily lives, even those living a mere five minute walk from the site of the shootings.

Toulouse is not a city unknown to violence, only in 2001 it experienced a huge explosion at the AZF chemical factory killing 29, leaving 2,500 serious wounded. Have these events led to a generation desensitized to violence? It is hard to say. Toulouse is not the only city to have ever been subject to terrorist attack or anthropogenic disaster. It is arguable that most young people living in far more dangerous communities than those of Toulouse would claim the same indifference to violence. I live on the opposite side of the river, around a fifteen minute metro journey from where the school shooting took place. At the time, I felt as far away from it all as you will feel reading this in Manchester.

Perhaps all that speculation about film, television and video games is true? Either way, I’ve got to get back to Call of Duty, those Nazi Zombies aren’t going to kill themselves.

Tags: france, Toulouse, violence

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