The story we’ll never know

Reuters reports: A 23-year-old gunman suspected of killing seven people in southwestern France in the name of al Qaeda, jumped from a window to his death in a hail of bullets after police stormed his apartment on Thursday.

“At the moment when a video probe was sent into the bathroom, the killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence,” Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding that Merah was firing several guns at once.

“In the end, Mohamed Merah jumped from the window with his gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground,” he told reporters at the scene. Two police commandos were wounded.

The New York Times reports: A top editor at the news channel France 24 said in a televised interview that she had spoken by telephone to a man who claimed to be the shooter in the hours before the police surrounded Mr. Merah’s building. “He was calm, was speaking in very good French and punctuated by Arabic expressions,” said the editor, Ebba Kalondo. She also said he spoke of planning more attacks and of intending to post video of his killings online.

“This man wanted to bring the Republic to its knees,” President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said on Wednesday, but “the Republic did not yield.” He spoke in nearby Montauban at a funeral service for three soldiers that Mr. Merah said he had killed in the days leading up to Monday’s killings of a rabbi and three children at a religious school here.

No doubt Sarkozy, in the middle of an election campaign, can be expected to frame this story in melodramatic terms, but just because Merah boasted that he had brought France to its knees, is no reason to treat that claim seriously by acting as though it demanded to be refuted.

If Merah had instead claimed that he was about to take over the world, would Sarkozy be saying that France stopped that from happening?

Yesterday, the French defense minister seemed to have a more sober assessment of the situation.

“This will not last for days, because of physical and mental fatigue. All the experience with crazed gunmen like this is that they stop at some point,” defence minister Gerard Longuet said on TF1 television.

“What we want is to capture him alive, so that we can bring him to justice, know his motivations and hopefully find out who were his accomplices, if there were any,” he added.

Unless it turns out Merah was a secret blogger or kept some other kind of journal, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever know much more about his motives or methods.

If there is one salutary lesson for American observers to take away from this, it is that just as was already shown in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2011 Norway attacks, terrorism does not require access to high explosives or complex bomb-making skills. All that is necessary is easy access to guns and yet in the United States the relationship between gun control and counter-terrorism can’t even be discussed.

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