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President Barack Obama took heat this week for seeming to imply that a recent attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris was "random" -- rather than anti-Semitic.
Obama made his ire-arousing comment in a Feb. 9 interview with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias asked if Obama thought the media tended to overstate the threat of Islamic terrorism, compared with issues like climate change.
As part of his response, Obama said this:
"It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor's got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive."
That was his only mention of the Paris attack in the interview, but it caught the eye of his critics.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential 2016 Republican contender, said the comments meant Obama was denying that the attacks were anti-Semitic.
"I am appalled that President Obama has chosen to deny the vicious anti-Semitic motivation of the attack on a kosher Jewish grocery in Paris on Jan. 9," Perry said in a statement. "What he called a ‘random’ attack was obviously meant to kill Jews -- which is precisely what happened. The individual victims may have been those unlucky enough to be in the grocery that day, but it was far from random."
But has Obama really denied that this attack was anti-Semitic? When we looked at the other things he’s said about the attacks, we found that’s not the case.
The attacks and their aftermath
On Jan. 7, two brothers carried out a terrorist attack on the Paris offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper, killing 12. A branch of al-Qaida in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack.
Two days later, 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly -- who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State -- held several patrons hostage in HyperCacher, a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. Coulibaly said he would kill his hostages unless police released the the Charlie Hebdo attackers. French special forces moved in, killed Coulibaly and found that he had killed four hostages.
Despite describing the attack as "random" in the Vox interview, Obama has made other statements that show that he is aware Coulibaly targeted Jews.
In a Jan. 22 statement to the United Nations General Assembly, regarding anti-Semitism, Obama said, "Anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris pose a threat that extends beyond the Jewish community."
And on Jan. 27 -- International Holocaust Remembrance Day -- Obama said, "The recent terrorist attacks in Paris serve as a painful reminder of our obligation to condemn and combat rising anti-Semitism in all its forms."
The day after the Vox interview appeared, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama meant that Coulibaly did not target specific individuals by name, so that the victims were people who just happened to be in the store that day. In that sense, the attack was random.
"The point that the president was trying to make is that these individuals were not specifically targeted. These were individuals who happened to randomly be in this deli and were shot while they were there," Earnest said.
Earnest also noted that not everyone in the deli was Jewish. This is true. At the very least, a Muslim man helped some shoppers hide in a storage freezer to protect them from Coulibaly.
According to the BBC, it’s not certain why Coulibaly killed these four particular individuals, when there were others in the market. Two of the victims allegedly tried to take a gun that belonged to Coulibaly, but it was empty. Coulibaly killed another victim when the man tried to enter the store soon after the hostage situation began.
So we know Coulibaly chose the HyperCacher store in order to target Jews. And we know he didn’t go into the store with particular victims in mind. But we can’t be certain that Coulibaly "randomly" chose who to kill once he was inside the store -- which makes Obama’s comments a poor choice of words.
Perry said, "Obama has chosen to deny the vicious anti-Semitic motivation of the attack on a kosher Jewish grocery in Paris."
In one interview, Obama described the attackers as "randomly" shooting people, but he seems to have been answering a question about how the public perceives acts of violence by terrorists. On several prior occasions, Obama called the attack on the grocery an act of anti-Semitism. Obama’s press team said Obama only meant that the killer did not target particular individuals as long as they were Jewish.
In the Vox interview, Obama may have used a poor choice of words to describe the way that people going about their normal, everyday business sometimes end up in terrorists’ line of fire. But Perry goes too far when he says Obama "has chosen to deny" anti-Semitic motivation. Obama has specifically cited such a motivation in several other instances. Because Perry’s claim is not accurate, we rate his statement False.
Rick PAC, "Statement from Gov. Rick Perry regarding Obama Administration’s Comments on Paris Terrorist Attack," Feb. 11, 2015
Vox, "Obama: the Vox conversation, part two," Feb. 9, 2015
CNN, "GOP targets Obama for Kosher deli 'random' comments," Feb. 11, 2015
BBC, "Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror," Jan. 14, 2015
BBC, "French terror attacks: Victim obituaries," Jan. 13, 2015
Reuters, "Malian who saved lives in Jewish deli attack gets French nationality," Jan. 15, 2015
Reuters, "Paris gunman appears in video, declares loyalty to Islamic State," Jan. 11, 2015
White House, press briefing, Feb. 10, 2015
White House, "Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day," Jan. 27, 2015
White House, "Statement by the President on the UN General Assembly Meeting on the Rise of Anti-Semitism," Jan. 22, 2015
Times of Israel, "Bodies of kosher market victims to arrive in Israel for burial," Jan. 12, 2015
New York Times, "French Police Say Suspect in Attack Evolved From Petty Criminal to Terrorist," Jan. 10, 2015
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