On Monday, a lone gunman on a motorcycle shot and killed a rabbi, his two children and the daughter of the principal of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. Three French soldiers were killed in the same area in the preceding week. A man who said he was interested in buying the first soldier’s motorcycle killed that soldier on March 11. The other two soldiers were killed on March 15 while withdrawing money from an ATM. A fourth was badly wounded. A .45 semi-automatic handgun was used in each incident, and forensics officials have confirmed that it was the same weapon.
The immediate thought is that these attacks are instances of Islamist terrorism, given the times we live in and the targets. But there are other possibilities. Two of the soldiers attacked were of North African origin. Given that the targets were North Africans and Jews, the attacks could just as easily have been carried out by a neo-Nazi against Jews and immigrants. This could also simply be the work of a lunatic, though the attacks were apparently carefully planned and carried out.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Western Europe was hit by a series of terrorist attacks by left wing terrorists such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. They carried out kidnappings, assassinations and kneecappings. Tangentially, they also frequently used motorcycles in their operations. But while these sorts of threats are not new to Europe, their randomness and unpredictability are deeply unsettling.
At this point we have what appears to be a single attacker who has carried out multiple attacks. There is no evidence that this is a group operation. As we have discussed, the possibility of lone wolves arising in the wake of the defeat of al Qaeda is real, and lone wolves are not confined to Islamist groups.
The lone wolf attack is in some ways most frightening and destabilizing when it is sustained and the attacker moves around the countryside. It breeds a deep sense of insecurity while, at the same time, making detection all the more difficult since there are no confederates to capture and provide information, no infrastructure, and potentially no way to predict the moves of the attacker.
There is no good time for this to happen, but close to a presidential election is probably the worst. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is running in a tight race; the lack of a suspect will both increase anxiety and generate paranoia about possible attackers. There is already anti-Islamic feeling in France, exploited by the National Front, but also by Sarkozy in several anti-Islamic measures, such as the banning of the hijab on Muslim women. The attacks will generate anti-Islamic feeling regardless of the uncertainty about the attacker's identity. Until more is known, Islamist terrorism will simply be the default assumption. That will force Sarkozy, who needs as much of the rightist vote as possible, to increase his rhetoric to hold the right, while potentially alienating the center.
It may turn out to be a lunatic on a spree. We are living in times where, in the absence of information, seemingly reasonable constructions will be made and taken seriously. That will shape the psychological state of the public and in turn potentially reshape a presidential election. In this case a possibly lone and isolated gunman could potentially affect the entire political process, not by assassinating a political leader, but by killing seven people — perhaps randomly selected, perhaps not. Beyond the killings, tragic as they are, their reverberating consequences are worth considering.