It didn’t take long for the responses to last week’s terror attack in Nice, France, to swerve into the absurd. Newt Gingrich grabbed early headlines with his draconian and unconstitutional proposal to ask every Muslim in America whether they believe in Sharia, while another commentator facetiously suggested President Obama should attempt to ban “assault trucks.”
Yet even the more restrained reactions carried with them an implicit—and implicitly false—promise: that the speaker knows how to fix this, that the right expansion of government power or programs (and it always is an expansion, isn’t it?) can stop such attacks, can quell our fears, can keep us absolutely safe.
That’s an easy lie, and a comforting one to hear when we suffer from the recurring nightmare of terrorism, but a lie it yet remains. The much harder truth is that even the most totalitarian state with the tightest borders, the most invasive spying, and the most aggressive war machine cannot keep us perfectly secure.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t act to prevent a repeat of this monstrous incident, but rather that now is the time when discernment and realism are needed most.
The specifics of the Nice attack bear that out. As we learned soon after the incident, the man responsible, Mohamed Bouhlel, was a Frenchman of Tunisian ancestry with no history of fanaticism. He had a record of petty crime, yes, but his interactions with law enforcement never raised more serious alarms.
France maintains a more expansive surveillance state than even America, but still Bouhlel “was not known to any intelligence services, local or national, as having links to radicalism.” The Islamic State has declared responsibility for the attack, but law enforcement have yet to find any evidence supporting what one counterterrorism expert called ISIS’s “cheap claim.” And though he obtained one pistol, the rest of the weapons in Bouhlel’s truck bizarrely turned out to be fake.
In other words, it’s difficult to imagine how any political “solution” could have prevented such an onslaught. How do you stop a madman who shows no sign of his intentions?
Even if Bouhlel is found to have a real tie to ISIS, how can further military intervention in the Mideast discourage someone who is functionally a lone wolf?
In short, politicians’ claims to be able to prevent future attacks by layering on more indiscriminate surveillance and war is by and large self-aggrandizing spectacle. “It nationalises and institutionalises public alarm,” as Simon Jenkins wrote at The Guardian. “It leads governments into madcap adventurism abroad and ‘securitises’ the private lives of citizens at home” without increasing real security.
Effective, responsible answers are likely to be more mundane. For instance, as Dominic Casciani details at the BBC, the casualties in Nice could have been significantly limited with well-placed concrete or stone walls or decorative barriers such as those that surround the British Parliament and the New York Stock Exchange.
“Now, fairly obviously, nobody wants to see massive Parliament-style black barriers on the seafront of seaside resorts,” Casciani concedes, “But, again, there are measures that can reduce the risk. Temporary road barriers made of large reinforced concrete blocks can be deployed at public events within hours and can even be securely anchored into the ground with the minimum of disturbance to the landscape.”
To be sure, concrete is not a sexy anti-terror talking point. But this is exactly the sort of creative yet practical preventive measures that might prevent another Nice. It may not have the glamor of spying or the thrill of war, but neither does it infringe on our civil liberties nor cost us dearly in blood and treasure.
It certainly makes more sense than adding another layer of mass surveillance.