Compassion for two tragedies, worlds apart

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, parents of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, say the family is “looking for justice – the same justice anyone would expect if their son were shot and killed for no reason.”

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In a world already torn by violence and pain, two cases involving the loss of young lives—Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and a rabbi, his two small children and another child in Toulouse, France have grabbed the world’s attention like no others in recent memory. 

Trayvon Martin, 17, a slender African-American high school student who was visiting relatives in a gated neighborhood in Sanford was allegedly killed in an altercation with George Zimmerman, 28, a “neighborhood watch” volunteer, who has yet to be charged or arrested in connection with the case. Within the same news cycle came the horrific shooting rampage carried out at the Otzar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse, apparently at the hands of Mohammed Merah, 23, a former garage mechanic, who had boasted of killing Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his 3- and 6-year old sons, as well as the 10-year-old daughter of the school’s principal. Merah, who claimed ties to Al Qaeda and terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was believed also to have killed three French soldiers a few days before the rampage at the school. Merah was killed by French police after an hours-long standoff.

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President Barack Obama’s response to the slaying of Trayvon Martin was especially moving. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” Obama told a news conference, joining others in calling for a thorough investigation of the tragedy. Attorney General Eric Holder has also assigned staff and FBI agents to join local and state authorities in such an investigation.

Jacques Benichou, executive director of the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU), France’s leading Jewish welfare organization, struck a note similar to that of President Obama in his response to the murders of the French school children. “It could have been anyone’s child.” He added, “Even if the killer was targeting other minorities, there is no escaping that he targeted Jewish children as well. We all feel deeply sad and very alarmed.”

To be sure, the Trayvon and Toulouse tragedies are separated by thousands of miles and very different sets of known facts. The Trayvon Martin case involves conflicting reports from neighbors who overheard the altercation and the fatal gunshot, a 911 tape of police telling Zimmerman that they “did not need” for Zimmerman to follow Trayvon and the initial refusal by the Sanford police to charge or arrest Zimmerman. More recently, the Orlando Sentinel and the New York Times have reported that Zimmerman’s account given to the Sanford police that was passed on to the state’s attorney’s office, said Trayvon had punched Zimmerman from behind as the latter was returning to his SUV, knocking him to the ground and repeatedly slammed Zimmerman’s head into the sidewalk in the moments leading up to the fatal shooting. The conflicting reports, including apparently leaked information that Trayvon had been expelled briefly from school over a minor marijuana incident, reinforce the urgent need for all relevant local, state and federal officials to get on with a comprehensive investigation of the facts with all deliberate speed.

In the case of the Toulouse tragedy, the gunman himself had boasted of having killed those at the Jewish school and three French soldiers previously, two of whom were Muslims. In con

trast to the complicated Florida case, most of the essential facts of the massacre in Toulouse are not in dispute.

What joins these two tragedies together is the sad fact that in this the 150th year since the American Civil War, and 50 years after the civil rights movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, young black males are still at risk of apparent racial profiling. The 911 tape includes an exchange between Zimmerman and Sanford police in which Zimmerman confirmed that he was following Trayvon who was “black” and “looked like he was up to no good,” and was told by the police, “we do not need you to do that.” Regardless of the conflicting stories, it appears that racial profiling might have been involved; all Trayvon was doing was returning to the home of his relatives after buying a bag of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea.  

Not since the 1955 killing of Emmett Till by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi who were acquitted of the murder, has there been a case that has so galvanized the African-American community. Mass marches and demonstrations have taken place not only in Sanford, but across the nation, including St. Louis, demanding justice in the Trayvon Martin case.

The Toulouse killings are a reminder that over 60 years after the liberation of the death camps in Europe, Jewish children are still vulnerable to mayhem and murder. Witnesses described seeing Mohammed Merah as looking “calm and determined” when he pulled up to the school on his mini bike. Merah first shot Rabbi Sandler, along with his two sons, Arieh and Gabriel, as they waited for a minibus to take them to their nursery. Merah then cornered 7-year-old Miryam Monsogego, the daughter of the school principal, and fatally shot her in the head. He also wounded a 17-year-old boy, who remained in critical condition last week.  

In France there have been street demonstrations denouncing anti-Semitism and racism in response to the killings at the Jewish day school in Toulouse. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also denounced the killings and vowed to protect the French public against such attacks to the greatest extent possible.

In St. Louis last week, at the “Can We Talk?” program featuring an address by David Makovsky on the Israel-Iran crisis, Batya Abramshon-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which co-sponsored the program with the Jewish Light and JCC, read out the names of the victims of the Toulouse shooting and asked for a moment of silence in their memory. Many members of the overflow audience commented that the photos of the Jewish children look very much like their own children and grandchildren.

Yes, let the investigations proceed, and let us make sure that the Constitution and laws be scrupulously followed in the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman deserves the presumption of innocence and the opportunity to give his side of the story. In the case of the Toulouse tragedy, it is essential that effective steps be taken in France to minimize the chances that future tragedies of this kind will be prevented.

In discussing massive tragedies, we often use round numbers of nameless people, such as 6 million in the Holocaust, 800,000 in Rwanda, 1.1 million in Cambodia, 200,000 in Bosnia and 300,000 in Darfur. But each of those huge numbers is a single human life. In the Talmud it is stated, “He who saves a single life is as though he saved the entire world.” President Obama and the head of the organized Jewish community in France, by making the losses in the Trayvon and Toulouse cases personal, reminds us to keep the very human faces of the victims in our hearts and minds. Indeed, they do look like our own children and grandchildren, and there but for the grace of God are we.