Sarah Halimi’s anti-Semitic murderer disappears behind a smokescreen

Two years after she was murdered, the family of Sarah Halimi rightly remains anxious that the French judicial system will fail them—and fail them wretchedly.

Sarah Halimi. Credit: Confédération des Juifs de France et des amis d'Israël.
Sarah Halimi. Credit: Confédération des Juifs de France et des amis d'Israël.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

During the prosecution of Jared Lee Loughner—the shooter sentenced to life imprisonment for the January 2011 murder of six people and the wounding of 13, including his intended target Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a political rally in Tucson, Ariz.—there was one theme that dominated the proceedings: his mental capacity to stand trial.

Loughner had been a chronic user of psychoactive drugs, particularly cannabis, for much of his life. He had also been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Unsurprisingly, his legal team leveraged both of these facts to argue that their client was mentally incapable of going on trial for his crime. And indeed, following a May 2011 hearing, Loughner was duly judged incompetent.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. Over the objections of his lawyers, the shooter received court-ordered doses of anti-psychotic drugs in order to restore his mental competency. A little more than a year later, Loughner was fit enough to stand trial, pleading guilty to 19 counts in November 2012. Doing so spared him from Arizona’s death penalty, and he is now serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

A similar debate about the mental competency of a killer with a heavy cannabis habit is going on in France at the moment, but the conclusions that are being drawn over there are dramatically different from the Loughner case. In the French example, the killer is someone with a much stronger mental-health profile than Jared Loughner, and his lawyers, in contrast to Loughner’s, have made much greater progress with the argument that their client’s mental deterioration, caused by his drug habit, renders him unable to go on trial.

Yet there is no dispute that Kobili Traore, a 29-year-old Malian immigrant living in Paris, killed his neighbor Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish widow, with his own hands in the early hours of April 4, 2017, after breaking into her apartment. There is no dispute that in the weeks before beating her to death, Traore had established himself in the mind of Halimi as a threat, having verbally abused her in the elevator of the building in which they lived, and having insulted her visiting daughter one afternoon as a “dirty Jewess.” There is no dispute that, the day before he murdered Halimi, he visited the Omar Mosque in Paris, known as a haunt of Islamist radicals. There is no dispute that, as he mercilessly beat and kicked Halimi with blunt objects, including a telephone, Traore bellowed the words “Allahu Akhbar” and “Shaitan” (Arabic for “Satan”) at his victim. There is no dispute that, after he hurled Halimi’s broken body from a third-floor window towards a garbage dump below, he was seen making gestures towards the police officers who were called in by terrified neighbors that suggested Halimi had committed suicide.

What is very much in dispute is whether, despite this background, Traore is mentally able to undergo a trial for murder motivated by anti-Semitic hatred, which under French law is considered an aggravating circumstance. Unlike Jared Loughner, he has not been diagnosed with a critical mental illness. But according to a new psychiatric report on Traore commissioned by the investigating judge in the Halimi case, between the hours of 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., when his assault on Halimi took place, he was so intoxicated from his ingestion of cannabis that he cannot subsequently be held responsible for his actions.

If this claim causes readers to raise their eyebrows in skepticism, it should. There is, of course, a well-documented connection between the use of cannabis and episodes of psychotic violence, but these examples invariably involve users with pre-existing mental-health conditions. No one has indicated that Traore suffers from schizophrenia or a related condition; the argument being entertained by the investigating judge, therefore, rests on the claim that cannabis use alone robbed Traore of his “discernement”—his judgement. The second and third psychiatrists who assessed Traore believe this to be true; the first psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Zagury, manifestly did not, and was in no doubt that the killer’s mind was sound enough for him to stand trial for murder aggravated by anti-Semitic prejudice towards his victim.

Two years after she was murdered, the family of Sarah Halimi rightly remains anxious that the French judicial system will fail them—and fail them wretchedly. There should be no mistaking, then, that a final decision that goes against putting Traore on trial, opting instead for some kind of medical supervision instead, will be an immovable stain on France’s reputation.

One might argue in the country’s defense that France takes great pride in its humane approach to criminality and mental illness, something that goes back to the early 19th century. One can also point out that France is a democracy with an independent judiciary, whose officials are not bound by the declared intention of President Emmanuel Macron and other elected politicians to combat rising anti-Semitism.

In the final analysis, however, this means denying basic justice to the victim of a hate crime that was sickening even by current French standards of anti-Semitism and racism. It means that France as a nation will be denied a further opportunity to learn how anti-Semitic beliefs can transition into anti-Semitic violence since previous and subsequent episodes in recent memory, such as the kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi (no relation) in 2006, or the terrorist shooting of three small children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, or the murder of 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll exactly one year ago, have seemingly failed to teach the French public that lesson.

In the future, there are two possible ways for Sarah Halimi to be remembered in the French imagination. The first is as a woman whose dreadful fate was determined by the fact that she was a Jew and was murdered because she was a Jew. The second is as the victim of a violent individual driven to insanity by a cannabis habit, and whose anti-Semitic utterances can be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic.

French Jews, along with Jews across the world who are watching the Halimi debacle with growing impatience, are in no doubt as to which of these portraits is the true one.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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