The Next Nice

The path the truck drove in Nice, France when it plowed through people gathered to celebrate Bastille Day. 84 people were killed and 256 more were injured.

The path the truck drove in Nice, France when it plowed through people gathered to celebrate Bastille Day. 84 people were killed and 256 more were injured.

By the time that ISIS claimed him as their own, we were already sure that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was an Islamic terrorist. The group’s belated statement of responsibility was merely the final, confirming line of the narrative that writes itself whenever a man with brown skin commits an act of conspicuous violence against the West.

Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old migrant from Tunisia who committed mass murder by truck in Nice last week, may indeed have been an ideological adherent of the so-called Islamic State, believing in their violent, apocalyptic (per)version of Islam. Or he could have merely been an economically depressed, toxically masculine, socially ostracized madman with the first name Mohamed. Though it is unclear which of these descriptions will ultimately prove to be more explanatory of last Thursday’s carnage, it was immediately evident which narrative would take hold in the popular and political imaginations.

Take it from the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who declared on Friday: “[Lahouaiej Bouhlel] is a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another,” as quoted in the New York Times. Never mind that Lahouaiej Bouhlel, as of writing, has no confirmed connections to radical groups. Or that he was not known to, or previously investigated by, French intelligence services for terrorism.  Or that he left behind no statement of intent or manifesto of beliefs. We know his motives well enough to write them in block print on the front pages of our newspapers.

The Times, though more circumspect in certain articles, invariably referred to the attack as “the third large-scale act of terrorism in France in a year and a half,” succumbing to the familiar script of terror that was most recently rolled out in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting. Then, as now, the perpetrator was an angry, spouse-abusing, non-devout Muslim with no clear connections to radical groups. Then, as now, we named him an Islamic terrorist before the last shot had rung out. The standard of proof required to charge someone with ideologically motivated terrorism in the courts of press and popular opinion has dropped to an all-time low, and we are perfectly content for the evidence to consist solely of circumstance and demographics, regardless of ideology.

So why does it matter? As I’ve noted, it could well turn out that Lahouaiej Bouhlel was in communication with ISIS, or that he saw himself as a soldier striking a blow against the “crusader coalition” state of France, as the group’s propaganda reportedly put it when they retroactively claimed the attack as their own. He could have already been radicalized for months or years, waiting for his moment to inflict maximum damage, or he could have turned to radical ideologies in the days or hours leading up to the attack. The number of dead will not decrease, the senselessness of their deaths will not cohere into meaning.

Simply put, it matters because how we understand the causes of such events determines how we react to them. A political, ideological attack calls out for a political, ideological response. More bombing. More security measures that encroach on civil liberties. Religious tests of loyalty, if you’re Newt Gingrich. Racism. Xenophobia. Islamophobia. France has already consigned itself to more terror, prepared to escalate its bombing of ISIS, and extended its period of national emergency. Responses such as these play straight into the hands of ISIS, which wants the U.S. and France to become more militarily aggressive and further demonize their Muslim populations. They also work to the benefit of ethnic nationalists like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. The ease and ubiquity of the terror-explanation bolsters the political ascendency of the very ethno-religious tribalism and belligerent foreign policy that help trigger such attacks in the first place.

It does not have to be this way. The unstable men who lashed out in Orlando and Nice were not foreign agents, they were domestic citizens. As violently masculine, socially marginalized men who perceived themselves to be rejected from mainstream culture, they share more in common with any of the multitude of mass-murdering white men – from Elliot Rodger to Adam Lanza to the Columbine shooters – than they do with a suicide bomber in Syria, even if they had adopted the latter’s worldview. Bombing ISIS or declaring a state of emergency won’t prevent a future Lahouaiej Bouhlel from renting a truck. Men like Rodger, Lanza, and Omar Mateen – the Orlando shooter – will be able to access and use high capacity weapons of war in the United States for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether Donald Trump bans Muslims from entering the country. We’re becoming more militarized, xenophobic, and surveilled without becoming safer, wiser, or more compassionate. Our responses are at best feckless and at worst politically opportunistic.

The social and economic dimensions of this problem call out for their own solutions. We need to contend with economic inequality, growing religious and ethnic intolerance, and toxic forms of masculinity. James Hamblin, a medical writer for the Atlantic explains this dimension well in his excellent piece, “Toxic Masculinity and Mass Murder:

Toxicity of anything in life is only ever a matter of context. And today’s context is one where a dangerous, militant sect is trying to radicalize volatile people who live in the country where weapons are the most plentiful in the world. Today’s context is that on top of all that, there are men who are full of insecurity and expected to express themselves only in certain, limited ways.

Hamblin’s conclusion is optimistic, much more so than a simple resignation to the inevitability of terror attacks or the perpetual escalation of our amorphous “war on terror.” “The arbitrariness and pervasiveness of masculinity,” he writes, “make it especially actionable on a personal scale, day to day and minute to minute.” So too with combatting religious discrimination, xenophobia, and racism. A good start would be not electing Donald Trump. These are not simple fixes, but at least they’re solutions not likely to lead to an exacerbation of the problem they seek to solve.

In the fragile moments after a catastrophe that seems to defy reason or meaning, we are thrown into a volatile uncertainty. Confusion, terror, anger, and vulnerability mix inside of a crucible of cause and effect waiting to be stabilized into narrative coherence. In the absence of explicitly stated motives, it falls to the press, the government, and the public to determine how the shockwaves of horror will restructure the contours of our society and our politics. In the wake of Nice, we would do well to follow the example of the queer community, which widely rejected attempts to turn Orlando into an excuse for Islamophobia, and responded with calls for solidarity that include Muslim and Arab-Queer communities. The alternative – of militarism and surveillance, islamophobia and division – only serves to set the stage for the next Nice.

One Comment

  1. Princeton '17 says:

    Nice and well-articulated thoughts on the surface, but the fact that you need to worry about Muslims becoming more violent in the wake of tightened security measures points to Islam, not Western mistakes, being the problem. No other immigrants repeatedly kill masses of civilians that they’ve never even met when faced with the difficulties of adjusting to another culture. Mexicans, Chinese, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and so on–who among these keep “reacting” the way Muslims do? None. Terrorism is a Muslim tactic that mystifies civilized human beings. Even if countries like the US and France agreed to make Islam the state religion and elevated Muslims to practically royal status, Muslims would still murder many innocents at random, as they often do in the Arab world. Why? Because Islam is a conquest doctrine that explicitly instructs its followers to commit such horrors. This is a violent ideology. Real Muslims believe in bloodshed for Allah; when, in the aftermath of terror, politically correct politicians remind the public that “most Muslims are peaceful,” they not only turn a blind eye to the fundamentalist principles that most Muslims around the world have approved of in surveys, but also conflate barely devout Muslims for real Muslims. Like most Muslims, most Nazis did not torture or kill other people. But convincing a nice Nazi to commit heinous crimes against humanity isn’t all that hard, and Nazism itself obviously promotes these atrocities, so countries mobilized their forces to stamp out this menace. Similarly, the attacks in Orlando and Nice indicate that any “moderate” or even hardly believing Muslim can rapidly be activated to wreck hundreds of lives, counting victims and their loved ones. The lie that only “radical” Muslims or psychos pretending to be Muslims are terrorists is rapidly unraveling before us. Any Muslim is susceptible to a little persuasion by ISIS and the like that they can glorify Allah by massacring strangers. Non-Muslims lack this vulnerability, except insofar as they are exposed to Muslim propaganda. Thus, heavily monitoring and reducing the number of Muslim time bombs in our midst is the only solution.

    Like you, I’m all for civil liberties, respect for differences, etc. But the state’s first duty is to protect its citizens’ lives. Protecting freedom of speech does not extend to protecting threats, which incite unlawful behavior that forces the victim to change her conduct out of fear. Similarly, protecting freedom of religion does not extend to protecting cults that call for their members to murder us. We can’t just keep waiting around to die at the hands of fanatics.

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