Mohammed Merah is dead. He was a terrorist and a murderer; and he was a young man.
While he was still alive and barricaded in a terraced house in some poor neighborhood of Toulouse he claimed he felt exultant to have killed three young children, their teacher as well as three soldiers; his intention was to continue killing, his main targets being Jews and assimilated Muslims; that was what he was trained for in Afghanistan and believed in as an Islamic fundamentalist. He did not intend to die as a martyr, he added. He was worried about his mother but did not wish to see her; and he was not so keen about discussing his brother.
What Mohammed Merah did was horrendous and should be condemned in all sincerity and eternally.
But that does not settle the question who Mohammed Merah was and how he became a criminal or a sociopath. Was he a monster, a madman or both? Is he someone to hate or someone to pity?
An English language teacher working in Rouen thought he is someone to be pitied and called on a minute’s silence to acknowledge his victimhood. It was perhaps an overstated remark made at the wrong moment. But the reaction to it was even more hysterical: she was suspended and her views were labeled the result of mental illness.
The first information that emerged about Mohammed Merah seemed to confirm his presumed cold murderer’s profile as the equivalent, on the Muslim side, of Norway’s lone wolf Breivik who killed seventy-seven people last year.
The Islamic studies scholar Tariq Ramadan was the first to point out that this was perhaps too simplified a depiction. There were too many biographical details that did not fit: the young man’s criminal record for theft; his extravagance and partying; his wish to join the French army; his child-like justification for his crimes, i.e. to ‘teach France a lesson’—“he attacks symbols,” writes Ramadan, his political thought is that of “young man adrift.”
The details that have in the meantime emerged appear to confirm this analysis. Mohammed Merah was not in Afghanistan; he had no military training; he was a hyperactive adolescent; and most likely was indoctrinated into committing his crimes by his more rigid, yet also mentally more robust, older brother Abelkader.
Whatever this is, it is a depressing story.
Revulsion can be cathartic whereas pity has often little therapeutic effect. This is especially true for the families and friends of those killed.
For compassion it is perhaps too early.
But eventually it will be necessary to reflect on the circumstances that make terrorists out of young men like Mohammed Merah. Two books written by two other men with inside or former knowledge of radicalization processes might prove helpful: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton 2007) and The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain (Penguin 2007).