Elite police units killed Mohamed Merah yesterday after a two-day standoff at his apartment in the French city of Toulouse, where Merah was suspected of killing seven people in a nine-day shooting rampage against paratroopers and Jewish schoolchildren.
As always in the beginning of such cases, one is confined to the evidence presented by the police and the media. According to their accounts, Merah said he decided to embark on this crime spree out of anger at France's role in the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, the banning of the burqa in France, and Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. Whether or not these accounts are true, Merah is guilty of a terrible crime, whatever motivation underlay the killings.
However, the attack is a political event requiring a political explanation, particularly as it comes in the context of the French presidential elections. The response of France's leading political parties is deeply cynical, aiming to exploit the tragedy to shift politics further to the right.
This event is a godsend for incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is trying to burnish his right-wing, law-and-order credentials and win the election despite his deep unpopularity.
The shootings have also boosted Marine Le Pen of the neo-fascist National Front (FN).
Recovered from the initial fright that her campaign might be finished if the murderer turned out to be a neo-Nazi killer like Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian fascist who killed 77 people last year in attacks in Oslo and Utoya Island, she now claims the event justifies her calls for social cuts against immigrants and "war" with Islamism.
The daughter of long-time FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen—who once dismissed the Holocaust as a "detail" of World War II history —she now poses with sickening hypocrisy as a defender of France's Christian and Jewish youth.
Bringing up the rear is François Hollande, the latest political coward to run as the Socialist Party (PS) candidate. Having indicated shortly before the shootings that he would keep most of Sarkozy's social cuts and attacks on immigrants and democratic rights, calling in particular for interning the Roma in camps, he is neither able nor willing to say anything that goes against the right-wing media consensus.
How is such a tragedy to be viewed? Anyone capable of such an act of murder against innocent people is deeply disoriented, but this disorientation emerges from a definite social and political context.
Born in 1988, Merah grew up amid a series of neo-colonial wars against Muslim countries launched by the United States and its allies, including France, with ever more open contempt for international law. When he was ten, Washington was resuming its bombing of Iraq after the first Gulf War; by his twentieth birthday, over one million Iraqis had died under US occupation. He witnessed Israel's suppression of the Palestinian intifada and its invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, and lived through last year's NATO invasion of Libya, which Sarkozy aggressively promoted, costing at least 50,000 lives.
At the same time, the European ruling classes deepened their social attacks on the working class, while increasingly promoting neo-fascistic policies targeting immigrants to poison the political atmosphere and divide the working class along ethnic lines. In France, this took the form of the promotion of Le Pen and Sarkozy's policy of banning the burqa and targeting entire ethnic groups like the Roma for deportation.
As they turned to the right after the collapse of the USSR, the official "left" parties—the PS and its political satellites, the Communist Party and the New Anti-Capitalist Party—increasingly supported such policies quite openly, both in and out of power.
This deep corruption of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois "left" parties produced a pathological situation in which broad layers of working class Muslim youth in France were cut off from left-wing opposition to class oppression. At the same time, they were subjected to mass unemployment and vilification in the media.
Under such conditions, it seems inevitable that unstable or disoriented individuals would register their opposition through acts of violence, or even murder. It appears that Merah was one such individual. A mechanic who struggled with his temper and had a history of petty crimes, he was drawn to the army and embittered by the French Foreign Legion's refusal to accept him as a soldier in 2010.
Ultimately, Merah was drawn to the reactionary panaceas of right-wing Islamists and took to viewing Islamist lectures to register his opposition to the victimization of Muslims. He then traveled, under unclear circumstances and with the knowledge of US and French intelligence, to Afghanistan and a number of other Muslim countries, before returning to France.
By exploiting this tragedy to justify more police-state and anti-immigrant measures, the French ruling elite is further brutalizing the working class and escalating the policies which produced Merah's crime in the first place.
The Florida shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has focused attention on so-called Stand Your Ground laws that have been adopted in as many as 21 US states. These laws give people wide latitude to use deadly force inside and outside the home rather than retreat, and to claim self-defense.
Trayvon Martin, a black high school student, was shot and killed on February 26 in a predominantly-white gated community in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, 28, who was patrolling the neighborhood as a citizens watchman.
The failure of police to arrest Zimmerman in connection with the killing has sparked a nationwide outcry. On Monday, the US Justice Department announced that its Civil Rights Division would investigate the killing.
Trayvon was killed by one shot to the chest from Zimmerman's 9mm semiautomatic handgun. The young man was unarmed and was carrying only candy, a can of iced tea and some cash at the time of his death. A voice heard calling out for help on one 911 call before the fatal shooting has been identified by Trayvon's mother as her son's.
A series of 911 calls received from Zimmerman and others that evening indicates that Zimmerman was following Trayvon in his SUV, and pursued him on foot despite being told by dispatchers to wait for police. In a cell phone conversation between Trayvon and a friend obtained by the attorney for the boy's family, Trayvon describes Zimmerman following him. Residents report some type of confrontation taking place between the two before the shooting.
Zimmerman told police that he was attacked by Trayvon after he had given up chasing him and was returning to his truck. Sanford police on the scene accepted his claims of self-defense. In a statement Wednesday, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee said his officers were "prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time." Lee insists that under Florida law, it is now up to prosecutors to determine whether to bring charges against Zimmerman.
Florida's Stand Your Ground law was adopted in 2005 and signed by the Republican governor at the time, Jeb Bush. The law allows people to use deadly force in places outside the home when an individual has reasonable fear that an assailant could seriously harm them or someone else.
The Florida bill and similar laws in other states codify and expand the reach of what has been called the Castle Doctrine, which asserts that a person has the right to defend his or her home if the person is in fear of "great bodily injury." The principle that "a man's home is his castle" has its roots in English common law.
The Stand Your Ground laws promote vigilante-style justice, allowing people to use deadly force in public places such as neighborhoods, the workplace or public parks—anywhere they have the legal right to be. Individuals are also not required by law to remove themselves from the perceived dangerous situation. These laws have gained favor in the environment of law-and-order hysteria promoted by the political establishment and media.
Specifically, the Florida law states that a person "who is attacked" anywhere where he or she is lawfully present has "no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm." Once self-defense becomes an issue at trial, the prosecution carries the heavy burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.
The Florida law emerged following a case in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2005, when a man shot and killed a burglar who was reportedly trying to break into his RV. The man was not charged. The case encouraged then-Florida state Senator Durell Peaden, a Republican, to introduce a bill in the state legislature, SB 436, dealing with similar situations. The Stand Your Ground legislation passed with wide bipartisan support, with only 20 legislators voting against it.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) vigorously supported the law, and NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer was its chief promoter. She attacked all those who opposed SB 436—including the National District Attorneys Association, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and police chiefs from several major cities—as "bleeding heart criminal coddlers," who wanted Floridians to "turn around and run" instead of protecting their families and property.
Since the passage of the law, so-called justifiable homicides have skyrocketed in Florida. According to Democratic state Senator Oscar Braynon of Miami, there were 43 such cases in 2005, and that number had jumped to 105 by 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available.
These figures have also risen nationally. In 2010, the last full year measured by the FBI, the agency reports there were 278 justifiable homicides, the most in 15 years. As the FBI uses a more restrictive methodology than Florida, counting only those people killed during the commission of a felony, the numbers are likely much higher.
Since passage of the Florida legislation, the NRA and gun lobby have been emboldened to push for more states to adopt similar laws. While there is some overlap between the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws, as of January 2012, 30 states currently had some version of the Castle Doctrine, while at least 17 of these states had versions of the more forceful Stand Your Ground law.
While states in the South and West tend to have stronger forms of such reactionary legislation, some version of these laws are also on the books in Michigan, Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Alaska.
A double killing in Texas is representative of the type of aggressive violence that is encouraged by these laws. In 2007, looking out his window in Pasadena, Texas, Joe Hom saw two black men in his neighbor's yard that he perceived to be carrying out a burglary. As reported by Liliana Segura on AlterNet.org in 2008:
"I've got a shotgun," Horn told the 911 dispatcher. "You want me to stop him?"
The dispatcher tried to talk him down. "Nope, don't do that," he told Horn. "Ain't no property worth shooting somebody over, OK?"
It was not OK with Horn. With the dispatcher still on the phone, he grabbed his gun, went outside, yelled, "Move, you're dead!"—and shot the two men in the back.
Hom claimed that "he was afraid for his life," despite the fact that the 911 tapes clearly showed he was never in danger and that he in fact pursued the two men on his neighbor's property. A grand jury failed to indict him in 2008, largely due to Texas's version of the Castle Doctrine, which came into effect in 2007.