By Bonnie Kristian
It didn’t take long for some responses to last week’s horror in Nice, France, to swerve into the absurd. Newt Gingrich grabbed early headlines with his draconian and unconstitutional proposal to test every Muslim in America (as if real terrorists would answer honestly?) while another commentator facetiously suggested President Obama would attempt to ban “assault trucks.”
Yet even the more restrained reactions carry with them an implicit—and implicitly false—promise: that the politician speaking 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 is an easy lie, and a comforting one to hear when we suffer such a recurrent nightmare as 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 is not to say we should not act to prevent the repetition 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 out the necessity of a measured approach over knee-jerk reaction. 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 is 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 or 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 we must devise to avoid another Nice. It may not have the glamour of spying or the thrill of war, but neither does it infringe on our civil liberties nor cost us dearly in blood and treasure.
And it unquestionably would have stopped that diabolic truck.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published be Rare on July 20, 2016. Read more HERE.