The attack in Nice, France last month, which involved a truck driving through crowds celebrating Bastille Day, has added yet another chapter to the tragic book being authored in France at the hands of domestic terrorists. Eighty-four people were killed and many more injured at the hands of a petty criminal who took an everyday object and made it a weapon.
Through all of this horror, France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls made an important observation that has become lost in the media coverage of the tragedy. He said, “Times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism. We have to show solidarity and collective calm.”
This is an extraordinary statement, because it gets at the failings of the continually perpetuated myth that terrorism is something we are “at war” with (and can therefore defeat), or that it’s based solely on a strand of “radical Islam”, or that our countries can protect us from vigilante acts.
It’s extraordinary that a political leader would admit that we are coming to a point where we may have to actually live with terrorism—ie, accept it. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States’ World Trade Centers, it seems the narrative regarding terrorism is often constructed along the lines of “this will never happen again if we take the following steps.” Yet time and time again, even after invading other countries in an attempt to dismantle a terror threat and running a drone program that kills people in numerous countries abroad, it seems that terrorist attacks have only become more numerous and more common.
But we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe that we are all safe, that the advanced security apparatuses of the West, coupled with our fantastical military strength, can protect us from whatever is out “there”, with “there” being the rest of the world.
This isn’t a war, though—at least not in the traditional sense. Terrorism isn’t something confined by borders, it is not something that we can sign a peace treaty with, nor does it have centralized headquarters we could attack. Neither is it a single entity or even a homogenous idea. There are many types of terrorism, which have different shades, nuances, and are grounded in vastly differing social, economic, and political contexts. Therefore, it is not a singular conflict based within a single set of circumstances. While we might like to think of ISIS as responsible for all terrorist attacks in the world, and that if we dismantle their apparatus we will be safe from this threat, it’s more than just false—it’s actually a naïve belief.
Terrorism has also moved beyond being based solely in a perverse religious ideology, but we have yet to accept that reality either. These acts are vile and disturbing, to put it lightly, but they are not always motivated by deep religious faith. As Peter Neumann, a professor at King’s College London and the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization told the New York Times, “It’s a social and political problem.” Individuals who are drawn to radicalization are often “not deeply ideological or even religious. Ghettoization, polarization, and alienation in a country like France are profound,” he said. “Bottom line is: it’s about feeling like you belong.”
There are other options when it comes to addressing some of the root causes of terrorism. One of them is not, however, extending emergency law in France for another indiscriminate block of time (it has now been in effect around 8 months), allowing police to search the homes of suspected terrorists without a warrant in addition to placing terror suspects under house arrest without a court order. This can alienate and terrify anyone, not just those that are ideologically driven.
Finally, the reality of the world we live in is that terrorism is a part of it, just as much as globalization and the Internet. It is not a far-off threat, but (particularly with the rise of “lone wolf” attacks) can happen at random, without reason, and be carried out by many people who we would never think of as “terrorists”. Part of the horror of the Nice attack was that it was not a strategic strike at a symbolic or political target that required massive amounts of funding and coordination amongst multiple actors, but one man turning an everyday object, a truck, into a weapon and using it to kill many people.
The hard truth is that if France (which, as previously mentioned, has some of the most expansive laws in place to aggressively combat the threat of terrorism) cannot stop something like this from happening, would the US be able to? If the San Bernardino, Orlando, or the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shootings have taught us anything, it’s that the answer is “probably not.” Additionally, France has much more restrictive gun laws than the US, which is worth noting. As we continue to expand the state’s reach into our daily lives, to monitor our communications, to forgo due process to assure our “safety” when no such thing can in fact be secured, we need to recognize that this is a dangerous path with no tangible benefits.
While the reaction of some (in fact many more than initially thought) is to support the calls of people like Donald Trump to ban Muslims from the US, that’s a horribly shortsighted and misguided idea that I won’t even dignify as calling a “solution”.
There are other options out there.
I’d recommend taking a listen to Invisibilia’s episode entitled Flip the Script, which follows two Danish police officers as they work to use kindness and respect to combat radicalization in their town. By working to bring individuals into the folds of society and making them feel like they belong, they are able to not only prevent youths from departing for places like Syria, but also have those that want to return come back and lead normal and productive lives.
Prime Minister Valls’ statement that we should “learn to live with terrorism” does not connote defeat, because this is not a war. It does not glibly promise victory when what we think of as a “victory” is not applicable here. It is merely an admission of a man who understands what we all should—that this is a problem with many causes and effects that cannot easily be solved. As we mourn the losses sustained in yet another attack, France’s third major terrorist incident in recent memory, it’s important that we recognize terrorism’s true essence, and not some comfortable fiction. This is something we will have to live with, and address in a smarter, more forward-thinking way than we have in the 15 years since 9/11.