NEW YORK – What possessed the young French Muslim Mohammed Merah to murder three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three soldiers, two of them fellow Muslims? What possessed another man, Anders Breivik, to gun down more than 60 teenagers in a Norwegian summer camp last year? These murder sprees are so unusual that people demand explanations.
To call these killers “monsters,” as some were quick to do, sheds little light on the problem. They were not monsters; they were young men. And to dismiss them as madmen is equally evasive. If they were clinically insane, nothing more would need to be explained.
Two accounts, both broadly socio-political, stand out. One was put forward by the controversial Muslim activist Tariq Ramadan. He blames French society. More specifically, he blames the fact that young Frenchmen of Muslim origin are marginalized on the grounds of their faith and the color of their skin.
Even though these people have French passports, they are treated as unwanted foreigners. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself the son of immigrants, says that there are too many foreigners in France, he drives young men like Merah farther into a corner. A tiny minority of such men might lash out in desperation.