It’s incredibly easy to feel completely, totally and extremely futile in even contemplating how the world could respond to the Nice attack, let alone write about it. The horrific truck assault left 84 men, women and children dead as they celebrated Bastille Day and there’s a terrible sense of injustice, heart wrenching tragedy and unnecessary loss to it that is impossible to shake.
It is inevitable that there are polar extremes in the response to the attack – Simon Jenkins, writing for The Guardian, has already pronounced that the only response should be sympathy for the victims, while right wing political opponents to Francois Hollande in France have criticised him for not putting enough security and intelligence measures in place to prevent the attack – however, somewhere in between the two extremes surely there’s got to be a rational, constructive, empathetic response.
When you look at the statistics, the risk of being involved in a terrorist attack is incredibly low, which is one of the points the mossy stone camp repeatedly turn to. However, what is missing in that world view is a genuine understanding of the difference between the standard list of high-hitting causes of death (cancer, heart attack etc.) with the sudden and tragic loss of so many people all at once. There are also things that you can do to legitimately reduce the risk of them taking you early, but with attacks like this, it’s immediate and often unavoidable for the people involved. It also strikes indiscriminately, as was the case in Nice where ten of the dead were children, which for us is more than enough to instigate more preventative activity.
The other significant rationale for doing nothing but being sympathetic, as Simon Jenkins so one-sidedly points out, is that doing something more significant will incite more attacks. There is indeed an element of truth to this, but at the same time you could say that doing nothing could have a similar result. If we do nothing to tackle extremism at its source it could result in even more devastating attacks, as has been the case in the past with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On the other side is the danger of going too far in our attempts to deal with extremism, which has the possibility of removing the very civil liberties that democratic countries like France were founded upon. Surveillance, intelligence efforts and security measures can stifle freedom, equality and social cohesion (or Liberté, égalité, fraternité as the French refer to them in their country motto). When you add this to the premise that certain activity deployed at the source of extremist activity can result in prolonged bitterness and renewed determination on the part of potential attackers it becomes clear that whatever can or should be done as a result of the attacks in Nice will need to be scrutinised thoroughly.
The problem is that while we’re sure that more can and should be done to reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks, it’s difficult to see anything approaching a credible solution. France has already committed to doing more to tackle the situation at its Middle East origins, but surely this activity needs to be thoroughly analysed in terms of its effectiveness, potential success and likelihood of inciting further attacks. In terms of the changes to security, intelligence and surveillance, these will need similar pragmatism to ensure they close the net on would-be attackers without dismantling the morality and social direction of a nation.
On a practical level, there are civic planning initiatives that cities like Nice will be looking at going forward to minimise the possible impact of attacks like this. Bollards and vehicle barriers to pedestrian zones are fairly common place in cities throughout the UK and we’ll be very surprised if they don’t become more commonplace. Cities will also be doing more to review risks around large public gatherings, celebrations and events to deter further attacks and to provide more protection for people involved.
In terms of the attacker himself, he was known to police as a petty criminal and had a violent past, according to the BBC, but without any overt links to extremism. While the attack has signs of radicalisation, he wasn’t known to intelligence services, but was recently estranged from his wife following violence. The death toll that he inflicted could be enough for the French intelligence service to review how similar people are scrutinised going forward, especially considering the messages from IS leaders inciting similar killings.
The reality is that nothing can stop all tragedies from happening, but when something so brutal as the attack in Nice happens, it’s impossible not to ask what more can be done to prevent them. The people in the crowd on the Promenade des Anglais could have been your family and friends, which makes it such a scary prospect for the future as attacks like this and the horrific shooting in the Pulse club in Florida last month seem to be happening more and more frequently.