It is unimaginable that a 60-year-old woman, praying quietly in the historic cathedral of Notre Dame in Nice, France, would be beheaded by a bloodthirsty jihadist.
Except that is not unimaginable, but now to be expected. The three people killed by an Islamist extremist screaming praise of Allah were only the latest. Alongside the beheaded woman, the killer stabbed to death the 55-year-old sacristan, a father of two, and a Brazilian-French woman, 44, the mother of three.
The suspect in the murders is a 21-year-old Tunisian, Brahim Aouissaoui, who arrived at the Italian port of Lampedusa last month, was admitted to Italy and then entered France illegally. Police on the scene shot him while he continued shouting “Allahu Akbar!”
It was … an abomination in the house of God
It has been less than five years since 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel had his throat slit by two Islamist killers while he was at the altar offering the Holy Mass. His murder took place in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France. It was a grave offence against life, a wicked perversion of the natural order, with the young and strong turning against the old and weak, and an abomination in the house of God.
Earlier this month, French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Islamist from Chechnya. He was killed on the street in broad daylight, his body mutilated and photos posted on social media. The killer claimed he had “avenged the prophet;” Paty was a figure of controversy for teaching about the cartoons that had occasioned the 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris.
Back in 2015, France was shaken to its core. Some two million people, including more than three dozen world leaders, rallied in Paris against jihadist terror. “Je suis Charlie,” the world said.
“France is under attack,” said French President Emmanuel Macron this week after the Nice cathedral slaughter, announcing that 7,000 troops would be posted at schools and religious sites around the country.
But France has been under attack for some time. In 2015, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, 10,000 troops were deployed around France, and thousands of police were sent to guard Jewish sites, including synagogues, schools and community centres. Indeed, police and armed forces’ protection of Jewish sites has become the norm in French life. To be a Jew in France means that state protection from the threat of jihadist terror is not the exception, but the norm.
Last month, the French interior ministry announced that 7,000 — that’s the standard figure apparently — would be deployed for Yom Kippur after a September stabbing at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
France has been under attack for some time
As for the 7,000 troops Macron deployed this week, that’s merely an increase over the 3,000 troops that had already been deployed to protect schools and religious sites before the Nice attacks. Given the enormous number of Catholic churches in France, large and small, to say nothing of schools and other institutions, if the French state would seriously attempt to protect them all it would require something akin to martial law.
Isn’t that what France is living, in slow motion at least? What else should it be called when thousands of troops are regularly deployed to protect sanctuaries so that the elderly and children might pray without being beheaded?
Some years ago I found myself on a flight to Tel Aviv sitting next to a successful French businessman. The father of a Jewish family, he was going to explore the options for moving to Israel. He thought that it might be safer than living in Paris and, in any case, his wife would be happier living with less of a police and military presence.
A significant part of French society — France has Europe’s largest Jewish population at about 500,000 people — has been living under quasi-wartime conditions for several years. Is it now proposed that a much larger proportion of French society live in that way?
Perhaps. For the past several years, the number of attacks on French churches — graffiti and vandalism, including sacrileges, as well as arson — is between two and three incidents per day on an annual basis. When Notre Dame in Paris burned last year it was first assumed to be arson (it wasn’t) because the second-largest church in Paris, St. Sulpice, had been torched just a month earlier.
The mass murder and beheading in Nice was unusual only in the severity of the attack; that a church in France would be attacked is absolutely, resolutely, matter-of-factly a part of daily life.
France is under attack. So says the president; he is right. The question is whether France will simply learn to live with it, or do something serious about it.