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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