France’s Jewish School Massacre: A Horrified Country Unites After Shooting Spree

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Charles Platiau / Reuters

People gather in Paris on March 19, 2012, for a silent march honoring the four victims of a gunman who attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse earlier that day

France came together in sorrow Tuesday to mark the horrific killing of four people outside a Jewish school in Toulouse Monday — an outrage the headline of the daily Le Parisien called “The Tragedy Stunning France.”

As more details of the cold-blooded assassination of three small children and a 30-year-old teacher emerged, French authorities raised the security and terrorism level in the area around Toulouse in southwest France to its highest mark. They simultaneously upped the already massive manhunt put into place to find the assailant. But even as the bodies of the slain were flown to Paris en route for burial in Israel, police were still struggling to determine the motives and identity of the man who in scarcely a week has likely murdered three ethnic Arab soldiers and four pious Jews in three clearly well-planned attacks.

(PHOTOS: Children Killed in French School Shooting)

The day was one of national solidarity, as French people across the country decried the spree of violence — and in particular denounced its targeting of the nation’s Jewish community. That unity cut across what had previously been rather stark lines of division. On Tuesday, candidates running against the Elysée’s incumbent joined President Nicolas Sarkozy’s suspension of his campaign and replicated his voyage to Toulouse to pay homage to the victims. During a visit to a local public school — which like others in France marked a minute of silence Tuesday morning — Sarkozy reminded students that while the chilling events that occurred the day before clearly sought Jewish victims, it “could have happened here.” The innocents cut down, he noted, “are exactly like you.” Yet Sarkozy told the children of the enormous effort under way to identify and stop the killer — who in two separate shootings last week left three ethnic Arab soldiers dead and one of their black colleagues seriously wounded — and promised that authorities “will do everything to stop him.”

There seemed no limit to the facets of horror involved in the shootings — particularly Monday’s massacre. In all three attacks, the killer — who rode a scooter and obscured his identity with a mask and helmet — methodically went about slaying victims he’d clearly selected prior to setting out. His organization and diligence in his tasks have become evident — and absolutely nightmarish. Officials now say the killer may have been wearing a camera to film his slaughter on Monday. If so, footage will show him reacting calmly to the small caliber handgun he first used jamming, and pulling out the .45-caliber weapon used in his previous two assaults. Video would also confirm whether some witnesses are correct in saying the killer held a little girl by the hair to prevent her from fleeing as he swapped guns and then fatally shot her once he’d pulled the .45 out. Given the hideousness of his other acts, officials aren’t disinclined to believing the assassin may well have been filming his attack.

(MORE: Is the French Jewish School Shooting the Work of a Serial Killer?)

That level of heartless cruelty — combined with a rhythm of strike each four days — has added further urgency to the massive police hunt for the perpetrator in and around Toulouse. For now, authorities are going on some obvious but difficult-to-link evidence to try to come up with a wider picture. Monday’s killing was not only a terrible but also clear act of anti-Semitism; it also targeted a place full of vulnerable victims whose young age would further shock public sensibilities. The killer’s earlier selection of ethnic Arab and black soldiers, meanwhile, would also suggest racial hatred was involved in his planning — as well as possible score settling with the military. Beyond that, however, theories range from the perpetrator being a neo-Nazi, an Islamist extremist, a lone shooter striking out at unsuspecting enemies or part of a conspiracy using mass murder as terrorism.

For now, police are looking into the not-illogical possibility that the killer is a disgruntled ex-member of the military or someone otherwise acting out rage against France’s armed forces. But even as France holds its breath hoping the investigations move swiftly toward apprehending the assassin, one thing has already become clear: if the objective of his spree was to call attention to sections of French society he views as enemies from within, his horrible actions have done the opposite. On Tuesday, distinctions of creed and color faded away as the nation came together to mourn the terrible loss of its innocents.