PARIS—The crime is nightmarish for its brutality and all the worse because it seems so random.
Four young American women, Boston College students, were sitting on a bench at Marseille's bustling Saint-Charles station Sunday morning waiting for their train to Paris when a stranger approached. Then, suddenly the assailant is alleged to have sprayed hydrochloric acid in the faces of the unsuspecting tourists.
Two of the women, both in their early 20s, suffered burns and were rushed to the hospital. One victim was released Sunday afternoon, but the other remains hospitalized. According to reports in the French press, the acid badly damaged her eyes, costing her 50 percent of her vision.
A statement issued by Boston College quoted its director of international programs, Nick Gozik: "It appears that the students are fine, considering the circumstances, though they may require additional treatment for burns. ... We have been in contact with the students and their parents and remain in touch with French officials and the U.S. embassy regarding the incident."
All four of the students were juniors, according to the statement. Three were enrolled in the Boston College Paris program, and one in the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.
French police have ruled out terrorism, and here is where the horrifying story takes a turn for the truly bizarre. The 41-year-old alleged perpetrator is reported to be another woman. Described as "mentally unstable" by police sources, the suspect allegedly lingered at the scene, where she showed officers pictures of what she said were her own burn scars. She herself was a victim of an acid attack years ago, she claimed—as though her own victim status somehow excused her actions.
Acid attacks are rare in France, but they are not unheard of. Last month, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for hurling three bottles of acid at a café terrace in the chic 16th arrondissement of Paris, just steps away from the storied Arc de Triomphe. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Meanwhile, attacks have been rising in several other European countries.
As The Daily Beast reported in August, acid attacks in London doubled in 2016 to 431, and over 500 attacks have been reported this year alone. In July, for instance, two teens embarked on an acid-spraying spree, perpetrating five attacks in a single night.
Attacks are also increasing in Italy, often by jilted former lovers leaving their ex-girlfriends physically disfigured and mentally scarred.
“They use acid because it takes just a tiny dose to corrode and ruin someone’s life,” Michele Marzano, a center-left politician told The Daily Beast in 2013. “The aggressor often chooses a woman’s face because it embodies her beauty and her identity. The acid removes the shape of her face. It is a way to cancel her out.”
Outside of Europe, acid attacks are an enormous problem, as shown in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s 2012 Oscar-winning film “Saving Face” about the atrocities committed in Pakistan.
The ease with which acid can be purchased (it’s the main ingredient in many basic household cleaning products) makes such attempts to “cancel someone out” frighteningly easy.
Unlike other deadly weapons, such products are neither illegal, nor is their sale in any way regulated. The 14-year-old would-be attacker in Paris, as well as the teenage London assailants, are proof of just how easy it is to get your hands on such substances, regardless of how young (or how mentally unwell) you may be.
As for the suspect in today's train station attack, her claim that she was victimized herself has yet to be verified. However, police report that the young Americans abroad were chosen at random, not based on their nationality.
In short, it seems to be a wrong place at the wrong time scenario that has echoes of a dark fairytale—young women in a strange land brutalized by a someone twice their age who may have been bearing a grudge about the way her own youth was snatched from her.