The Bastille Day terrorist rundown massacre in Nice, France last week shows us again just how hard it is to wage a successful war on “terrorism” as such. Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, though clearly it’s a tactic that some ideologies and populations seem more gung-ho to take up than others.
The instincts of political parties the world over when faced with terror attacks are to limit liberties — parties of the “right” more narrowly and of the “left” more broadly. Populist parties are more likely to call for surveillance, limits on movement and other restrictions on groups from which the terrorists came. Progressive parties prefer to limit all of our liberties and to guard against any hints of prejudice.
Thus the ruling Socialist French President François Hollande called for an increase in “our level of protection” against “the scourge of terrorism.” He gave meaning to those words by extending emergency legislation that limits the liberties of all Frenchmen and gives the French military a more active role in policing the country.
Hollande’s counterpart on the populist right, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, blamed not “terrorism” but the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism,” which she called a “murderous ideology that we let develop in our country.”
Le Pen called for the “total eradication” of the ideology and urged Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to resign after several terror attacks on his watch. She also favors “Frexit,” the exit of France from the European Union, in part because it would allow France to control the movement of non-Frenchmen in and out of the country — with an emphasis on out.
We’ve seen a similar script play out in America with recent terror attacks.
Liberals, including President Obama and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have called for an increased level of protection in the form of gun control measures and greater surveillance and even held a sit-in in Congress to force votes on gun control. At the same time, they have cautioned against blaming “Muslims” or “Islam” for the few bad apples who give the “religion of peace” (using George W. Bush’s designation) a bad name.
American conservatives have both ridiculed this approach and argued for an alternative approach similar in some ways to the National Front’s. Republican nominee Donald Trump has mocked his opponent for refusing to call out “radical Islam” and has called for a total though temporary ban on Muslims traveling to America. His closest opponent in the primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, called on police to “patrol and secure” America’s few Muslim neighborhoods.
Many right-of-center politicians have repeated their support for the Second Amendment rights of non-felonious citizens to keep and bear arms. They have pointed out, for instance, that the proposed restrictions would not have prevented recent terror attacks at all and that liberals used to oppose many uses of the FBI terror watch list and the TSA’s no-fly list.
Further, conservatives charge a failure of imagination bordering on obsession with the gun control push. Large-scale terror attacks the world over recently have used a large variety of implements — guns, certainly, but also bombs, knives, axes, and now, a truck.
Prominent conservative Republicans have called for much tougher measures against ISIS on occupied territory as a way of dealing with this. Cruz has advocated “carpet bombing” ISIS until some desert sands are turned to glass.
Yet the Nice attack mocks both approaches to warring on terrorism. Yes, conceded François Heisbourg in the Financial Times last weekend, taking some territory from ISIS “will limit the training opportunities for foreign terrorist ‘fighters,’ but how much training does it take to drive a truck?”
That’s not a dumb question. A single deranged jihadi driver with a cargo truck and a few guns managed to kill 84 packed-in partiers and maim hundreds more in the kind of attack that is easy to repeat and hard to guard against. And remember that ISIS is far from the only wellspring of Islamic-flavored acts of terror.
There are things that may work to lessen terror attacks for the United States, including good, hands-on intelligence; more tips by citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim; smart efforts by law enforcement to trip up would-be jihadis before they go off; and a tough look at our refugee and defense priorities to make sure that we’re actually making Americans safer.
Still, we will never be 100 percent safe from terrorism. After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and Orlando and Nice, it seems to me we shouldn’t sugar coat that bitter fact.