THE BLOG

An Earnest Mistake?

02/12/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

In early January, a series of terror attacks struck France. In total, 17 people were killed during the three-day rampage. The victims on the first day were the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, the victims on the second day members of the police. The victims on the third day were Jews shopping in a kosher supermarket on a Friday, soon before the start of the Jewish sabbath. Within hours of the first shootings and continuously throughout, French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls strongly condemned the attacks. Both also specifically condemned the heinous, yet not new to France, anti-Semitic nature of the supermarket attack.

As a French Jew who happened to be in Paris during that terrible week, I protested alongside millions of my countrymen who took to the streets that following Sunday. Beyond feeling compelled by civic duty, I was moved by the "Je Suis Charlie" posters, and even more by the countless others claiming "Je suis Charlie, Je suis Flic, Je suis Juif" ("I am Charlie, I am a Cop, I am Jewish") which commemorated the three groups that fell victim to radical Islamist terrorism.

Today, a little over a month after the attacks, I cannot describe my surprise reading about President Obama's description of the attack at the Hyper Casher supermarket as a "randomly shoot[ing of] a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," as stated in his interview with Vox.com.

Perhaps the president was trying to distinguish acts of terrorism from crimes of passion where the perpetrators know their victims personally. In that context, using the word "random" would have been imprecise but hardly newsworthy. Yet, instead of clarifying the president's remarks, the White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, instead explained yesterday that "The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible tragic incident were killed not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be," and added, "These individuals were not targeted by name, this is the point."

It just so happened that these individuals' names in that "random" shooting were Yohav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada. Only after hours of criticism on social media did Earnest clarify his remarks, tweeting that: "Our view has not changed. Terror attack at Paris Kosher market was motivated by anti-Semitism. POTUS didn't intend to suggest otherwise."

The same pattern emerged at the State Department. When Jen Psaki, the Department's spokesperson was asked whether Jews were targeted at the kosher supermarket, she said: "I don't think we're going to speak on behalf of French authorities and what they believe was the situation." Matt Lee reporting for The Associated Press then asked: "But if a guy goes into a kosher market and starts shooting it up, he's not looking for Buddhists, is he?" Psaki eventually hid behind: "I just don't have more for you. It's an issue for the French government to address."

Less than a month ago, on January 16th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid a wreath at the supermarket and spoke with the head of France's Rabbinical Council. This was followed by a State Department declaration stating: "We condemn in the strongest terms ‎yesterday's cowardly anti-Semitic assault against the innocent people in the kosher supermarket."

Why is it that White House and Foggy Bottom officials felt obligated to twist themselves into contortions when the U.S. government initially stated the obvious and uncontroversial truth? It is utterly disrespectful towards the dead and their families to strip them of their identities in death, particularly when that Jewish identity cost them their lives. The victims were buried in Israel, in the same cemetery as the other anti-Semitism victims of the March 2012 terror attack in Toulouse, where an Islamist terrorist shot a rabbi and three schoolchildren who were in front of a local Jewish school. Today, I am left to wonder if that shooting would also be characterized as "random."

Did something get lost in those four weeks since the State Department's original statement and Secretary Kerry's Paris visit? If the president misspoke, it is a very unfortunate but minor gaffe, but the painful, Orwellian contortions of his press begs the question: Why did the president's staff assume that he intended to deny the targeting of the Jewish victims in Paris rather than chalk it up to an imprecise choice of words? Or were the president's words, reiterated and reinvigorated by his spokespersons, a random, earnest mistake on their part? At this point, one could only hope so.