Ilan Halimi: clichés turning lethal

There was a big uproar in France during the past few weeks caused by the horrifying murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23 year old Jewish shop clerk, by a gang of hoodlums who called themselves, very aptly, “The Barbarians”.

Halimi was abducted by the gang on January 21st. On Monday 13th he was found naked, gagged and handcuffed, his body bearing burn marks and showing signs of torture, near the railway station of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. Soon after he died.

Since his abduction Halimi’s family had been engaged in negotiating a ransom to be paid for his release. The initial sum appears to have been 450,000 euros.

French newspaper Libération reports that there have been four more, failed, attempts at abduction by the same gang since December. Halimi had been found, according to the same article in Libération, with his face covered, reminiscent of the infamous photos of prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Yesterday Youssouf Fofana, the head of the Barbarians, or the Brain as he calls himself, was returned to France from the Ivory Coast, where he had gone into hiding. Fofana is a black Frenchman of Ivorian descent. He is now facing a life sentence, with the aggravating circumstance that his victim belonged to an ethnic/religious minority. In short, he could be accused of anti-semitism as well. Fofana already had a criminal record before he and his Barbarians abducted Halimi. He is also accused of having distorted money in 2004 and 2005 from other people.

Was it mere coincidence that Fofana’s gang chose a Jewish victim? Clearly not, since he himself has already stated that he did it for the money and that Jewish people were known to have “loads of cash”.

I know one could reasonably argue that the argument “Jews have loads of cash” is anti-semitic, but what about all those non-Jewish millionaires that live in fear of having their children abducted because, they too, have “loads of cash”? Or any other people suspected of being rich, like those The Barbarians tried to distort money from earlier?

Halimi was definitely the victim of a prejudice, or rather an old cliché, but not a prejudice concerning race or religion per se. There was no ideology involved in this heinous crime and there appears to have been no targeted ethnic hate either. It was in a disgustingly simple and vulgar way a matter of “cash”.

Halimi died because he belonged to a group of people who are thought to be rich. If the tired, old cliché of ‘rich Jews’ had not existed, Halimi would probably be still alive today. What haunts me is the brutal inanity of that cliché. There are thousands of similar clichés about thousands of different people. Could it be that each and every one of them contains a seed of violence? Or is the cliché in question, about Jews being rich, in some ways still more lethal than others?

Technical update: I have corrected some factual pre-coffee errors.

31 thoughts on “Ilan Halimi: clichés turning lethal

  1. For those who read French, there is an interesting interview on this issue with Alain Finkielkraut, who ties the murder of Ilan to a general inability of having a “bad conscience”:Tout à la fois archéotribale et cybermoderne, l’ultraviolence que nous voyons s’installer n’a pas que les Juifs pour cible. Il y a quelque chose d’irréductiblement atroce dans la séquestration, la torture et l’assassinat d’Ilan Halimi. Mais cet événement a quelque chose de commun avec les violences ordinaires qui frappent aujourd’hui des professeurs, des assistantes sociales, des infirmières, des médecins, des pompiers dans l’exercice de leurs fonctions.
    (hat tip TLÖN, UQBAR, ORBIS TERTIUS)

  2. Would it still be lethal had somebody rescued a Jew in preference to somebody else in hope of a higher reward? Man is violent.

    You are reading too much into that incident. You could say that France has grown too soft on crime, has failed to integrate some immigrants, etc., but this is not racism.

  3. “But this is not racism”

    No, as I stated, it is about cash and a cliché gone sour. I see we posted simultaneously, but part of your argument (French soft on crime) is addressed in the link I gave above.

  4. “This is not racism”?!

    “I knew they had someone down there,” said a young French-Arab man, loitering in the doorway of a building adjacent to the one where Mr. Halimi was held. He claimed to live upstairs from the makeshift dungeon but would not give his name or say whether he knew then that the man was a Jew. “I didn’t know they were torturing him,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have called the police.”

    But it is clear that plenty of people did know, both that Mr. Halimi was being tortured and that he was Jewish. The police, according to lawyers with access to the investigation files, think at least 20 people participated in his abduction and the subsequent, amateurish negotiations for ransom. His captors told his family that if they did not have the money, they should “go and get it from your synagogue,” and later contacted a rabbi, telling him, “We have a Jew.”

    From today’s N.Y. Times…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/05/international/europe/05france.html

  5. “But it is clear that plenty of people did know, both that Mr. Halimi was being tortured and that he was Jewish.”

    This piece of information I did not know. Very sick.

  6. Torturing a Jew doesn’t make you a racist. It’s racism only if you torture him because he is a Jew.
    That doesn’t make this crime acceptable, but needlessly throwing around allegations of racism obscures thinking.

    Guy: Your links don’t work for me.

  7. From the above-cited article: “We have a Jew.”

    But… It’s racism only if you torture him because he is a Jew

    Oh, I understand; if you torture him because you think Jews have money, I guess that’s not racism. Or because they control the world. Or because — as some of my (erstwhile) co-religionists have been fond of saying, lately — they are descendants of pigs and monkeys.

    Yes, I can just imagine the scene, at 4, rue Serge-Prokofiev, Youssouf Fonfona standing over Ilan Halimi and telling him… “Sorry, Ilan, we have great respect for Jews; they are the People of the Book. If anyone in my gang ever called you « sale juif » they would never work with me again. But, as you know Ilan, the Jews have all the money, and that’s what we want. Yes, I know, we’ve already kidnapped you; there’s no need to torture you in order to demand ransom; just the threat of killing you ought to do the job with your family, but you know how Jews are about money. As well, some of my gang need to see a little blood now and then. So if this hurts you, Ilan, you can imagine how it hurts me, too…”

    Yes, I see your point, Oliver.

  8. (… a while later)

    I apologise for the snarkiness, Oliver. It wasn’t called for. It’s just that I had had a discussion with a “gentleman” who, knowing my ethnic origin (I was born in Lebanon), automatically assumed I would be receptive to his variety of anti-semitism. I was feeling a bit « sale beur » myself when I commented above. Désolé…

  9. No problemo.
    There was a racial element. It was racial stereotyping. I haven’t found statistics about religion and income in France, but it is no secret that there are differences of income between ethnic and religious groups.
    The problem is that racial stereotyping is not irrational. If I need a Chinese text translated right now, I’d go to the students’ dormitory down the road and ask somebody who’s looking Asian. I would act according to a racial stereotype, but I’d have better chances of success than picking a student at random.
    And you don’t want to improve planning in abductions for money, do you?

  10. “Halimi was definitely the victim of a prejudice, or rather an old cliché, but not a prejudice concerning race or religion per se. There was no ideology involved in this heinous crime and there appears to have been no targeted ethnic hate either. It was in a disgustingly simple and vulgar way a matter of “cash”.”

    That explains the kidnapping. Cash does not explain the torture. In fact the torture works against the cash explanation.

  11. Resentment against the rich. Frustration as the deal didn’t get through.
    And a bit of torture that you can show might improve willingness to pay. It might also be meant to show that you are serious.

  12. “Cash does not explain the torture”

    No, but as Oliver says it could very well have been frustration because the deal didn’t go through. Torture could have been ‘justified’ in their eyes because he was ‘only’ a Jew.

    What I find even more serious is the quote David mentioned about plenty of people knowing he was being tortured. Did they remain silent out of fear or because he was ‘just a Jew’?

    In any case this whole business is truly sickening.

  13. “Resentment against the rich. Frustration as the deal didn’t get through.
    And a bit of torture that you can show might improve willingness to pay. It might also be meant to show that you are serious.”

    The little bit of torture doesn’t square with what actually happened. This wasn’t a bit of torture. Cut off a finger and send it to the victim’s parents and your explanation makes some sort of sense. This was torture over a long period of time. Frustration suggestion dealt with below.

    “No, but as Oliver says it could very well have been frustration because the deal didn’t go through. Torture could have been ‘justified’ in their eyes because he was ‘only’ a Jew.”

    I don’t buy the frustration idea very much. First it assumes the torture took place only after the deal fell through. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Even assuming that it did, once the deal fails to go through you magnify your risk of getting caught a huge amount by keeping the victim and torturing him. If your goal is largely monetary and that isn’t going to happen, you just kill him and move on. A longish period of torture (in a city as opposed to some remote location) speaks to an interest which is not largely focused on money.

    If the torture was justified in the offenders’ eyes by the fact that the victim was a Jew, we come right back to the anti-Semitism which I suspect had a lot to do with how the victim died even if he was initially kidnapped for money.

  14. Who exactly are the Barbarians? The implication is that they’re a Muslim gang, but I read one report (Wall Street Journal, maybe) which said they were multi-ethnic, comprised of Muslim and Christian Africans, Muslim North Africans, and Christian native French.
    Given the tensions existing with respect to Muslims in France, knowing who was behind this outrage is both important and potentially explosive

  15. Imagine their situation. They have done something drastic and ultimately foolish. Slowly they are understanding that they have doomed themselves. And the object of the crime that will send them to jail for a decade and destine them to a life as outcasts afterwards is in their hands. Further they realize that they need to kill him, if they are to escape at all, yet if they are caught, as is likely, matters become much worse. Everybody wants him dead, but desperately wants some other member of the group to do the fatal deed. Yet nobody can admit that, possibly not even to himself.
    A really rational criminal would have cut his throat and disposed of the corpse, but he would have put more emphasis on security and used a smaller group in the first place.

    Granted, him being a member of another ethnic group might have made it easier and maybe him being a Jew made it especially easy, but that is speculation without evidence at present.

  16. Ok Oliver, I’m with you so far. And what is next? In your understanding they can’t bring themselves to kill him and they realize that it isn’t safe to keep him alive so……. they spend many hours and perhaps more than a day torturing him? I don’t see how that jump gets made.

  17. “Who exactly are the Barbarians? ”
    It’s a mix of African, West_indians, French Catholic, Portuguese, Arabs (A Iranian girl too)
    Exactly representative of people living in a poor suburbs of Paris.

  18. They hate him because he is the instrument of their doom. He will tell the police who they are and where to find them. That the police would find them anyhow as so many knew too much they wouldn’t consider as that would mean blaming themselves.
    In the end they make a half-assed move based on desperation and wash him with acid to get rid of evidence. They didn’t admit to themselves that that would kill him. They subconciously hope to preserve the ability to claim before the judge that they didn’t intend to kill.

  19. So you don’t think they really tortured him to torture him? They tortured him as a repressed way of killing him? That doesn’t sound right to me. I can see locking someone in a room and letting them starve to death under that explanation–you don’t have to actually take positive action at that point to cause the death. I don’t really see it as leading to torturing to death–absent another hatred issue (of which anti-Semitism or other racist animus leaps to mind as a hisorically plausible motivation).

    Torturing someone like that (especially in a group) tends to speak to group dynamics where the person being tortured is a stand-in or scapegoat for a hated group. Even in serial killer/sadist situations the person tortured and killed is often a stand in for another person or group of persons. The question is which group was Ilan standing in for? Rich people? I’m not convinced, especially since the Jewish component was specifically called out by those who tortured and killed Ilan.

    I don’t like to get into an ordering of evils past a certain point but torturing someone and killing someone are very close–and torturing someone to death rather than swiftly killing them is almost certainly the worse of the two. Disposing of a witness by slicing his throat shows a calculating ruthlessness regarding avoiding being caught. Locking him up in a room and letting him starve to death might show mental resistance to actually having a hand in the act of killing. Torturing someone is neither.

    Other notes worth mentioning from the NYT story:

    “By 2004, the police say, he tried extortion, aiming at prominent French Jews. When that failed, the gang apparently turned to kidnapping, using young women as bait.

    The Barbarians are thought to have been behind six attempted abductions, four of Jewish men, before succeeding with Mr. Halimi.”

    The leader has a history of targeting Jews.

    “Mr. Halimi was taken to the Pierre-Plate housing project in Bagneux, and initially held in an empty third-floor apartment at 1, rue Serge-Prokofiev, with the help of the building’s superintendent, according to the lawyers who have seen the investigative files. The gang covered his eyes and mouth with tape, leaving only a hole for a straw.”

    With the help of the building’s superintendent?

    “As the days wore on, his captors turned increasingly cruel, stripping off his clothes and beating, scratching and cutting him. A burning cigarette was pressed into his forehead.”

    “So far, a total of 19 people, ages 17 to 39, have been arrested in connection with Mr. Halimi’s abduction and death, including the French-Iranian woman, whose first name is Yalda.”

    19 people?

    “Standing in the doorway in Bagneux near where Mr. Halimi was held, the young French-Arab man smiled when asked about Mr. Fofana. “He was nice, everybody liked him,” he said. “If the police bring him back here, the guys in the neighborhood will liberate him.”

    Why would they ‘liberate’ a petty crook who failed at extortion? Perhaps killing Ilan makes Mr. Fofana some kind of celebrity. Why?

  20. Am I reading the story right that he was held 23 days? How many of those was he tortured? How was he held in an apartment complex with lots of people knowing and no one hinted to the police?

  21. So you don’t think they really tortured him to torture him?

    At first they treated him like the enemy he was. He was a member of a class that they believe to deny them opportunity in life. Then he was one whose statement in court would send them to jail. After that it turned into a collective form of execution, like stoning, which for the same reason is a long and gruesome process.

    I can see locking someone in a room and letting them starve to death under that explanation

    Such a passive course of action would hardly appeal to a gang of primarily young men who are all angry and scared. Besides they needed to get him or his remains quickly out of the building and the vincinity. Death from dehydration still takes days.

    19 people?

    To me this shows that they consider themselves members of a second society distinct from the urban citizens. Calling the police would have been treason. The ethnic diversity of the group suggests that the distinction is based on class, not ethnicity.

  22. “The ethnic diversity of the group suggests that the distinction is based on class, not ethnicity.”

    Isn’t it equally possible that a broad range of ethnic groups in the lower classes of France unfairly blame Jews for their problems? Jews don’t actually run France. If you are in the economic underclass of France and you are blaming Jews for that fact, you are engaging in anti-Semitic prejudice.

    “He was a member of a class that they believe to deny them opportunity in life.”

    He was a JEWISH member of a higher class. The JEWISH fact was repeated and emphasized by the offenders in statements before he was found. His alleged wealth was NOT emphasized except as an adjunct to his JEWISHness. Blaming French class problems on Jews is anti-Semitic because Jews don’t run France.

    You want to emphasize the class issue without apparently realizing that unfairly blaming Jews for European class problems is the number one preeminent way that anti-Semitism has expressed itself in Europe for centuries.

  23. Oliver,

    have you ever heard of Occum’s Razor? You are trying to rationalize an irrational crime. That is truly sickening.

    Who was it that said that racism is the maximum amount of hatred for the minimum amount of reason? I forget.

    They may have kidnapped him for money, but their twisted minds tortured him because he was Jewish. Taking revenge for all the supposed “humiliations” inflicted upon muslims worldwide.

    Those barbarians, you tried to insinuate that they are “multi-ethnic”… from the ethnic breakdown, they are 90% muslim, and a couple of “tokens” thrown in.

    You sicken me.

  24. 1. I am not ready to assume the worse without evidence.
    2. There is a lot of precedence of urban Franch being harrased in the suburbs. This does not happen for religious reasons.
    3. If your primary goal is torture you do not establish two-way communication with parents.
    4. There’s no reason to claim “we took him because Jews have money” unless it is true. If you don’t want to appear antisemitic, you just claim that he was wealthy, as he owned a shop. If you really hate Jews and are ready to admit it, then you admit it. Why make up so complicated a story?

    Trvir, humans act for reasons. Their actions can be understood. Understanding is not an idle undertaking. It leads to thought out responses. Closing your eyes to people’s motives don’t make them go away, whether they are ugly or not. Simple assumption of the worst doesn’t help either. That’s reverse wishful thinking.

    Regarding Occam’s Razor, if I have three crimes in sequence and the reason given for them is plausible and is not better in court than an obvious alternative, the simplest answer is that they are telling the truth.

  25. “Closing your eyes to people’s motives don’t make them go away, whether they are ugly or not.”

    True, which is why I wish you wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.

    Fact, they said things like we have “A Jew” to synagouges, not just his parents.

    Fact, they targeted Jews in the past.

    Fact, they didn’t just dispose of him when the ransom wasn’t paid. They tortured him.

    You explanation for the torture is that he was a representative of a class that they hated.

    You completely ignore the fact that wrongly holding Jews responsible for class problems or using them as a scapegoat to physically attack because of class problems is the primary way serious anti-Semitism has been expressed in Europe for centuries.

    Closing your eyes to people’s motives doesn’t make them go away, ugly or not.

    Exactly.

  26. The vain attempt by Guy to qualify this murder as a non-racist act is digusting. Even the nytimes has not included all details about this incident but it made clear of what the gang’s eventual intentions were. The gang consisted of many members, only a few were from portugal or the like. The majority were muslims. Attempting to sideline the fact that this gang was majority muslim reinforces my 1st sentence.

    No wonder people(Indians, Americans) are skeptical of Europeans not practising dhimmitude. These are the very arguments that islamists use to qualify their “suicide bombings”, racism against Jews. The parallels here are so obvious, only a blind could miss them. Pathetic. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.

  27. “The vain attempt by Guy to qualify this murder as a non-racist act is digusting.”

    Read, please, especially the end: “Or is the cliché in question, about Jews being rich, in some ways still more lethal than others?”

    I asked a question, I am not qualifying anything for the moment. The investigation is still on-going. If the answer to the question is “yes” then you have racism as a main cause for the kidnapping.

    That the consequent murder and torture were racist and anti-semitic in nature, that I now take as a fact and it answers the question about Jewish clichés being more lethal than some others (gay clichés can be equally lethal,for instance).

    Do not take the moral highground here before you know all the facts. In fact, there is no moral highground, we are all just spectators in this ghastly affair.

  28. “`…]
    No wonder people(Indians, Americans) are skeptical of Europeans not practising dhimmitude.”

    What does that means?
    Which Indians, which Americans?
    Which Europeans?
    What is dhimmitude?

    ” These are the very arguments that islamists use to qualify their “suicide bombings”, racism against Jews.”

    Do you really believe that islamists think “suicide bombing” is “racism against Jews”?

    “The parallels here are so obvious, only a blind could miss them. Pathetic. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.”

    Explain, unclear claims are not valid claims. Who are the guys you think about? How do you know they’re not blind?

    DSW

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