He was 23 years old, a French Jew saving up money to move to Israel, working at a cellphone shop along Boulevard Voltaire in Paris's 11th arrondissement. She was 24, a graduate student from Boston, studying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, living on West End Avenue. The photographs accompanying the heartbreaking, horrific articles about their respective murders show beautiful young people smiling for the camera, eyes lit with hope, utterly unable to foresee the fate that would befall them.
His name was Ilan Halimi. Her name was Imette St. Guillen. Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'may rabbah.*
The outlines of their cases have some striking similarities. Last seen by a friend at The Falls, a bar on Lafayette Street in SoHo, Imette's naked, battered, raped and asphyxiated body was found along a desolate backroad in Brooklyn last week, wrapped in a cheap, floral-patterned quilt. Her trademark mane of shiny black hair had been chopped off. Her face had been covered with strips of packing tape. A sock was shoved down her throat. Ilan was discovered on February 13th, stumbling naked, burned, beaten, bruised and bound out of the woods near a train station 15 miles from Bagneux, France, evidently dumped out of a vehicle and left for dead. His head was shaved and adhesive tape covered his hands and eyes. Acid burns covered 60 percent of his body. He had been held captive for the preceding three weeks in a cellar apartment on Rue Serge Prokofiev in Bagneux, tortured continuously. Phone calls made to family members featured the sounds of his agony in the background. Photos of his torture were sent over the internet. He died in an ambulance on the day he was discovered, en route to the hospital.
Though the French police initially resisted treating the Halimi case as a hate-crime, there is no doubt, now that the investigation is over a month and a half old and most of the perpetrators have been caught, that Ilan was chosen to be tortured and killed because he was a Jew. For Imette, only one week into the investigation, there are no leads on the motive of her killers, though experts in the field of criminal psychology have noted the serial-killer-like details of the case, the likelihood of more than one participant in her torture and slaying and the hatred -- though anonymous -- that marks the means of her murder.
Of the dozens of articles I have read on Ilan Halimi, none are finer than the one by Nidra Poller, an American writer living in Paris, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Check it out at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008006&ojrss=wsj. Meanwhile, with the plethora of pieces in the New York and Boston papers, I am hard pressed to recommend just one article or newslink about Imette St. Guillen. I have been impressed, however, with the clarity and dignity of the NY Times's coverage: www.nytimes.com.
There are so many stages with these high-profile murder cases...the Breaking News stage of shocking headlines and incomplete information; the Rush to Report stage of media venues racing to retrieve new details from the case, (resulting in information overload for the general public and the creation of rumors); the Parade of Pundits stage where commentators compete to contextualize the crime or draw some greater, larger meaning from it; the A-List News stage where the story dominates newspapers and networks and seems to become a part of the world in which we live; the Relevant Yet no Longer Shocking stage where the case recedes somewhat in the mind of the public; the Also-Ran stage when the story is suddenly upstaged by an even more horrific case; and every stage after that in which work the story bobs and weaves its way in and out of public awareness even as the investigation goes on and the real-life tragedy shatters the lives of those who loved the victim.
It is late on a Saturday night. I am enmeshed within yet another stage -- the Horrific Proof of Man's Inhumanity stage. I desperately want to go to sleep yet I am haunted by the brutal murders of Ilan and Imette, a Hansel and Gretel who wandered into the witch's house and found out the terrible truth about fairy tales. They seem familiar to me, perhaps because I am so familiar with their too-short biographies right now. Imette lived on the Upper West Side -- my own neighbhorhood. Ilan lived in Paris, a city I dearly love (despite the growing anti-Semitism there, which began well before this celebrated case). The footpaths of their lives might have overlapped with my own.
The proximity of certain passings seem to transcend mere coincidence. Famously, there are the cases of elderly spouses dying close together; in fact, just last week I attended a shiva **for a friend's father whose wife had passed on five weeks earlier. I remember the death of Mother Teresa following on the heels of Princess Diana's death. We were living in Jerusalem at the time and when I heard the news of Diana's death, I burst into tears, instantly falling into mourning for an iconic woman whose life could not have been more different than my own, but whom I had always identified with. When, days later, Mother Teresa died, I felt that she had willed her own passing, knowing that Diana -- too young, bereft of her small sons, was in need of her consolation in heaven.
So, too, I feel that there is a spiritual connection between the deaths of Ilan Halimi and Imette St. Guillen. Somehow, I see Imette -- the dedicated and brilliant young student of criminal law -- summoned to heaven by the Celestial Court after the despicable murder of Ilan, enlisted to train an army of angels so that they might intervene in earthly affairs when mankind, fueled by hatred, turns most inhumane.
*Great and Holy is His Name. The opening words of the Kaddish -- a prayer of mourning recited by an immediate family member.
**The seven-day period of mourning proscribed by Jewish law.