In the night between May 6th and 7th 2006 five skinheads, coming from De Kastelein, a known extreme right cafÃ© in West Flanders, beat up RaphaÃ«l Mensah, a fifty year old Parisian artist of Gabonese descent, and his thirty seven year old Belgian friend Alain Bouillon. Bouillon was heavily wounded and Mensah is now lying in a coma. According to Bouillon â€œthe skinheads werenâ€™t after money, they went after us because my friend has the wrong skin colourâ€. In fact, according to Belgian French-language La DerniÃ¨re Heure, Mensahâ€™s wallet was recovered on the crime scene with the 150 euros he carried on him still in it.
On May 11th, in an Antwerp street very close to where I used to live, an 18-year old man, Hans Van Themsche, went on a killing spree. His first victim, 46-year old Sonhul KoÃ§, a Turkish woman who was sitting on a park bench reading a book, was heavily wounded. Van Themsche had shot her in the back from a distance of six meters (6.5 yards).
The second and third victims were both killed. They were a 24-year old Malinese woman called Oulemata Niangadou who worked as an au pair and the little Belgian girl she was looking after, two year old Luna. Van Themsche had spotted Oulemata and Luna walking down the street, he passed them, turned around and fired at them, in theirs backs, from point blank range. When he was later questioned about his motive for killing the little girl, he is reported to have said: â€œShe was in the wrong place at the wrong timeâ€. In all it took Van Themsche just four minutes to destroy three lives. He was stopped by a policeman who arrived at the scene and shot Van Themsche, apparently a willing target since he shouted â€œjust shoot meâ€, in the stomach. Van Themsche is now in the hospital, but he will survive.
What possessed Van Themsche, who had no previous criminal records at all and was by all accounts an intelligent and decent young man, to commit such a heinous crime? Well, according to Belgian Dutch-language newspaper De Standaard Van Themsche had written a farewell letter, another indication that he planned to die, in which he thanked his parents for all that they had done for him. He also wrote that he hoped his three younger brothers would be happier without him. He did not mention extreme right wing politics in his farewell letter and neither did he particularly single out the school he was to be expelled from. To police offers questioning him he declared that he wanted to be a skinhead.
It is noteworthy that he had only shaven his head on the morning of Thursday 11th, the day of the killings, after he found out he would be expelled from his boarding school for smoking in his bedroom. On that same morning he took a train to Antwerp. In Antwerp, at a quarter to ten, he entered a weapon store to choose a hunting rifle. He left the store and returned forty five minutes later with the money. Back on the streets he threw away the packaging material and loaded the gun. The eventual shootings would occur between 11.49 and 11.53 hours.
So, we have a farewell letter indicating Van Themsche had serious emotional problems – why would his brothers be better off without him? â€“ and a timeline suggesting that he had rather suddenly decided to act because something, the expulsion maybe, had finally tipped him over the edge. In short, a longer history of emotional disturbance combined with an impulsive decision to finally act inspired by a tipping point. This is corroborated by a fellow student who said Van Themsche told him â€œhe would commit suicide if he were to be expelled from school, but not without first taking ten foreigners with himâ€.
This guy externalised his obvious self-hatred. His statement that he wanted â€œto take ten foreigners with himâ€ indicates clearly that he thought the cause of killing foreigners worthy enough to rationalise his own problems with Thanatos. He wanted to end his life and he wanted others to share in his own misery. Others that deserved it, others that were foreigners.
Iâ€™ll leave it up to the psychologists to further dissect Van Themscheâ€™s inner life, all the more because we do not know everything about it yet. What interests me right now is his choice to kill foreigners. What informed this choice? Why did becoming a skinhead appeal to him so much? You know, skinheads like those who assaulted RaphaÃ«l Mensah and Alain Bouillon.
To police he said he had been ragged by foreigners when he attended school in Antwerp and that he wanted revenge. Yet his parents, completely stunned by the events, have told De Standaard that they could not believe that their son had killed out of racism. They said he even had foreign friends.
Some people in the press have focussed on his familyâ€™s ties with Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang. His aunt, Frieda Van Themsche is a Vlaams Belang MP and his whole family seems to have been deeply involved with Flemish nationalism. Yesterday BBC News had an article, entitled Far-right ties in Belgian murders, linking the murders to the far-right environment of Van Temsche:
Police say Mr Van Themsche’s father helped found the now defunct anti-immigration party Vlaams Blok, and his aunt is an MP for its successor, Vlaams Belang.
Still, none of the familyâ€™s children have ever been involved with the far-right Flemish Nationalist Youth (VNJ) movement. In various news reports they are described as a decent, law-abiding family.
In any case Vlaams Belang, which has issued a statement formally condemning the murders and calling Van Themsche a â€œderanged criminalâ€, is being blamed for having created an atmosphere of hate that lead, albeit indirectly, to the murders. Progress Lawyers Network, who describe themselves as â€œprogressive lawyersâ€, have issued a press statement (pdf) in which they lay the blame squarely at the feet of Vlaams Belang and, in particular, Paul Belien of the right wing weblog The Brussels Journal. As Paul Belien himself explains:
Following Hans Van Themscheâ€™s killing spree, however, his aunt is guilty by association, and so is the entire party. The Belgian government has strongly condemned the shootings, describing them as an extreme form of racism. Guilty, too, is this website because the writer of this article happens to be married to another VB member of parliament. Today a far-left organisation, the Progress Lawyers Network (PLN), attacked The Brussels Journal in a press release, and demanded that â€œPaul Belien be prosecuted for his recent publications.â€ (â€¦) Following the recent murder of Joe Van Holsbeeck I wrote that citizens should be allowed the right to bear arms (specifically mentioning peppersprays) if the authorities are no longer able to guarantee public safety. According to Belgian law it is illegal to buy, possess and carry pepperspray, although this is a purely defensive weapon which, if Joe Van Holsbeeck had been allowed to use it, might have saved his life.
For those who havenâ€™t followed this, it is about a supposed â€œcall to armsâ€ from certain VB members. Filip Dewinter, for example, has called for â€œthe right to an armed responseâ€ to robbery, etc. Not exactly a call to kill foreigners, but some people see in this a first step to officially sanctioned violence not only against criminals but also against foreigners.
Now, to what extent was Hans Van Themsche really influenced by all this? We really do not know yet. Personally, I do not believe he was inspired by the right-to-an-armed-response call and I certainly do not think his aunt or his parents can be blamed for his crimes. At least, not unless more damaging evidence is presented. Guilty-by-association is not good enough.
Was Hans Van Themsche influenced by far-right ideology? Yes, since he wanted to become a skinhead and kill foreigners. But it is not sure this violent aspect came directly from his family. Is far-right ideology, in this case Vlaams Belang, responsible for poisoning his apparently unstable mind to such an extent that it would have inevitably led to murder, just like video games or heavy metal are sometimes blamed for violence, or is this just a hugely unfortunate yet isolated case of madness?
Iâ€™ll leave that question unanswered until we have more information about this. In the meantime the comments are open for debate. In any case, I am afraid to his victims and their friends and relatives it will all seem pretty senseless in the endâ€¦
PS: I am aware that most links in this post point to Dutch-language articles, they are provided for those who understand Dutch, but I simply do not have the time to translate them all. If any information I gleened from them is wrongly represented, I am sure some native speakers of Dutch will correct me in the comments section.
UPDATE PS: I have fixed the links, they worked in preview mode but not when published. BTW, the links referring to De Standaard have disappeared behind the subscription wall.