Information is gradually coming out and/or becoming clearer about last night’s terror attack in Nice, France. The death toll has risen to 84, with 202 people injured and 52 of those injured seriously (French President François Hollande called their conditions “grave”). The driver of the truck has been identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian citizen who was a Nice resident and who worked as a delivery man. Bouhlel was known to police over a previous conviction on “assault-related charges,” but appears to have been entirely unknown to counter-terrorism officials, who still haven’t uncovered any links to any known terror networks or a working theory as to how/when he was radicalized (or if he was radicalized, I guess, though the attack itself obviously suggests very strongly that he was).
Until the investigation finds something more about this guy, it’s impossible to know whether he was working with a group like ISIS or al-Qaeda, or if he was just inspired to carry out the attack on his own. Some evidence, like the relatively unsophisticated nature of the attack and the fact that some of Bouhlel’s reported weapons stash later turned out to have been fake, suggests this was not carried out with any significant degree of planning, which then suggests a lone wolf-type of scenario (Bouhlel working on his own or maybe with the collaboration of a couple of pals). ISIS, obviously the most likely culprit if this was in fact a planned/directed attack, has not yet claimed responsibility, and while ISIS sympathizers have been celebrating the attack on social media, that’s not the same as an official claim. ISIS doesn’t always claim the attacks it carries out, but usually when it doesn’t make a claim it has some strategic reason for doing so, as in Turkey. November’s attack in Paris, which was directly carried out by ISIS, was formally claimed by the organization, and it’s hard to fathom why they wouldn’t claim this one if it was, in fact, their operation.
I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the distinction between an attack that’s directed by ISIS and one that’s inspired by their message is important. I can understand why it might not seem that way in the immediate aftermath of an attack, but it matters in terms of how we respond and what our expectations are. Lone wolf terror attacks, to the extent they can even be called “terror attacks” (terrorism is distinguished from other kinds of violence by its explicit political aims, while the aim of many of these recent attacks just seems to be killing a lot of people) are in most practical senses indistinguishable from any other kind of crime, and short of turning our society into a police state, which still probably wouldn’t work, completely preventing crime is an impossibility. As Juan Cole puts it:
The elite Paris counter-terrorism unit has been mobilized. But the fact is that most unfortunately, this kind of attack probably cannot be forestalled. No amount of surveillance or suspension of civil liberties could stop a single individual or small cell of close friends or relatives from committing a soft-target nihilistic attack of this sort.
This crime has some resemblance to the murders of a serial killer, which are notoriously difficult to stop or solve. In an ordinary murder of the sort the detective or crime-solving mystery writers focus on, the police are said to look for “means, motive and opportunity.” But serial killers don’t have a specific motive, just a general one, that they get off on killing. A general motive is too vague and lacking in detail to provide any help to solving the case. That is why some serial killers can polish off dozens of victims over years before they are caught. They don’t know the people they kill, and have no ordinary motive to kill them. Nothing would show up in bank accounts or email files. For the victim, it is more like a natural disaster, like taking a mountain hike and running into a hungry black bear or accidentally driving into a tornado.
If Bouhlel indeed acted alone, or even with a close friend or two or three, it’s quite possible that he/they would have left nothing to indicate to law enforcement that he/they were planning something like this. Law enforcement can’t prevent an attack that it can’t possibly know is about to happen.
In the hours since the attack in Nice, people have called for detaining Muslims, deporting Muslims, making Muslims take loyalty tests, and any number of even more troubling ideas. But it’s unlikely that any of those ideas would have prevented this attack, and virtually certain that, even if they had stopped this attack, they wouldn’t prevent the next one. And in the meantime, any one of these responses would render our society unrecognizable, would twist the values we claim to cherish inside out, would effectively do ISIS’s work for it.
That’s not to say nothing can be done. Defeating ISIS in Iraq and Libya will help, if the fight is led by Iraqis and Libyans–and if victory results in the establishment of stable, representative, accountable governments running both countries. Ending, through negotiation, civil wars in Syria and Yemen will help–if, again, the end of those wars brings the establishment of stable, representative, and accountable governments in both places. Making our supposed allies in the Arab world understand that the toxic ideology they keep exporting around the world is no good for anybody, that would help. Better, smarter counter-terrorism will help, though again there’s no indication that even perfect counter-terrorism work would have been able to intervene to prevent this attack. Improving the dire conditions facing immigrant populations in many Western countries would help. Sending financial aid to Tunisia, a country that desperately needs it and that has contributed a shocking number of fighters to ISIS, would help. And, yes, the Islamic world in 2016 has a problem with violent extremism that has to be addressed. But that problem can’t be solved by Western hectoring or intervention–in fact, those things will only make it worse.
These are all things that would help, but they’re not forceful, they’re not vengeful, writing about them won’t get you any clicks or any appearances on Fox News or CNN, and you can’t slap them on a bumper sticker and build your run for the White House around them, so they get lost in all the noise. And that’s why the cycle of violence never ends.