After any horrific crime, society invariably seeks to explain what seems to be inexplicable. Such a search is now occurring in France, as people in that country try to make some kind of sense of the killing spree perpetrated by Mohammed Merah, which culminated last week in the cold-blooded murders of schoolchildren and a rabbi in Toulouse.
Merah’s full motivation will never be known because he did not survive a stand-off with French police. But some of the explanations that are being offered by those who share many of Merah’s experiences are disturbing and provide important lessons that cannot be ignored, even on the other side of the Atlantic. “Childhood friends said… they could easily relate to his visceral rage, common among many second- and third-generation immigrants whose unemployment and alienation once again loom as a threat,” states a report in The New York Times.
“Like many youths of North African descent, Mr. Merah identified more with Islam than with France, said a 23-year-old former friend from school,” who gave his name only as Faoud. “Our passports may say that we are French, but we don’t feel French because we are never accepted here,” said Faoud, standing at a corner store in Les Izards, Mr. Merah’s dilapidated neighborhood. “No one can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the feeling that he had no hope, and nothing to lose.”
To be absolutely clear, one cannot draw exact parallels between different societies, with different histories and different cultures. France is not the United States and the United States is not France. But nor can anyone deny that there are disturbing similarities. Like France, America is faced with the uncomfortable reality that we have a growing number of second and third generation immigrants “whose unemployment and alienation…loom as a threat.” We can argue about whose fault it is, but there are pockets in this country where many people who were born in this country might say, as Faoud does, “Our passports may say we are American, but we don’t feel American.”
The take-away lesson from last week’s tragic events is this: Admitting immigrants is easy. Assimilating immigrants into the social, economic and cultural mainstream of your country is difficult. It always has been and, in the highly mobile, interconnected, skills-intensive, world of the 21st century, it is only getting more difficult. We should be paying attention.