Terror on Bastille Day

For months we have been living on edge. We’ve had the Paris attacks, the Brussels bombings, the San Bernadino attack, the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Istanbul airport attacks. Numerous terrorist warnings had been made during the European Football Championship. In Brussels and I’m sure elsewhere, concerns had been aired, security had been stepped up; it was recommended not to attend large public gatherings.

Then Euro 2016 finished. Holidays were about to start. French President Hollande declared that the state of emergency, which had been enacted following the heinous Paris attacks in November 2015, would be lifted end of July. And then it happened. Again. In Nice, the Promenade des Anglais that had filled for the celebrations of Bastille Day on 14 July, turned into a living nightmare. More than 80 men, women and children killed. More than 200 people injured. Families torn apart, lives and limbs lost as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a truck through the crowds.

How does one begin to comprehend this act? The sheer shift from celebration to chaos, from enjoying to surviving the night. Similar to the Paris attacks, it was a strike during ones night-out where anybody could have been the target. It was a strike during Bastille Day where France celebrates its unity, its revolution, its declaration of the Rights of Man, its very liberté, egalité, fraternité. And similar to Orlando, it was committed by a single man. A single man that had not been particularly known by intelligence officials. A petty criminal who had no sign of radicalisation.

It’s the awful singularity that gives this horrendous night even more worrying thoughts. It’s what Thomas Friedman called the growing power of one. One person with a truck or an assault rifle. One person with a home-made suicide belt. One person with biochemical or radioactive material. One person with a virus that could spread to a pandemic. How do you protect against that one person? How can a state protect society against a single individual? And that without withering away the very freedoms of society.

And it’s the awful singularity that makes one also wonder, how many more attacks might yet be to come? There are undoubtedly a range of people out there – be they returned ISIS fighters, radicalised youth, or petty criminals looking for a purpose – that are daydreaming with raising havoc. Many might still be held back by some sort of social norms, inner angst, fear for life. But will this last? Or will the regularity of such horrendous acts slowly wither away these last barriers, embolden them, and transform their thoughts into action as they see others do.

And when these people aren’t known as radicalised terrorists, what gives them the underlying ideological drive to destroy? How do we understand the killers’ minds? A pattern seems to emerge of small-time criminals looking for a purpose and an audience. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism might be on to something when they write that it’s not Islamic radicalisation via ISIS itself that just induces these young men – who have not been particularly devout – to terror but the fact that ISIS appeals to these young men’s self-worth. Islamic State makes them heroes in a narrative at a time when they are most likely in a state where they see no larger purpose to pursue.

Last, the events further hammer away at society. They increase fear and hatred and racism and divisions. I’m concerned of how far-right Marine Le Pen might gain from such a situation with the French Presidential elections less than a year away. And I’m concerned how Donald Trump might become a more realistic option for the White House. In crises, people usually tend to look for stability, leaders with experience, something or someone they know. But this time it feels different. With the world in flames, establishment politicians are losing credibility and there seems to be a gravitation towards tough-talking, non-conformist leaders. Contexts and situations of course differ from country to country but what seemed a joke in the US presidential elections is turning into a frightening possibility. And the more crises the world experiences, the more Trump might benefit from his isolationist “batten-down-the-hatches”, build-a-wall approach, which stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, the internationalist and former Secretary of State. The state of the world will undoubtedly be used against her by the Trumpians.

So much pain and so many questions left unanswered. Yet, as we mourn the losses at Nice and our thoughts are with the families torn apart, the spirit of Bastille Day – of unity, the rights of man, of liberté, egalité, fraternité – should continue to ring forth.

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