A few thoughts in the aftermath of the Bastille Day carnage in Nice:
- Terrorists, and terrorist organizations, are incredibly flexible, adapting their choices of weapons, tactics, and specific targets in response to the security environment in which they operate. A “weaponized” semi-truck driven at speed along a seaside promenade can be just as deadly, or even more so, than a gun or bomb in a nightclub, concert hall, sports arena, or office building.
- Terrorists determined to create mass casualties will always prefer soft targets, like crowds gathered to watch a fireworks display, over defended or hardened targets.
- No democratic society can defend or harden every possible target. Taking away one set of targets inevitably leaves others vulnerable. Determined terrorists will always have an array targets to choose from.
- Terrorist organizations must act in order to maintain their credibility and thus their viability as political organizations. This is particularly true in situations in which an organization must compete against other terrorist groups for the allegiance of activists and supporters.
- A terrorist organization that is suffering significant setbacks or defeats will be under particular pressure to act in order to demonstrate its continued relevance.
- France, because of its high rate of urban youth unemployment, its aggressive programs and culture of secularization, and the alienation of its Muslim population from society and government, is especially vulnerable to radicalization and homegrown attacks. Increasing that vulnerability is the fact that thousands of European citizens, as many as 900 from France, have traveled to Iraq and Syria as foreign fighters. Hundreds have since returned home.
The United States is immune from none of these forces. Our society is open and potential targets are too numerous to count. As we have seen at Fort Hood, in Boston, San Bernardino, and in Orlando, the means for homegrown terrorists to inflict mass casualties on innocent civilians are easily, and generally legally, obtainable.
Working to our advantage is the fact that far fewer Americans have joined ISIS or other jihadist ranks as foreign fighters. At the same time, and for the most part, Muslim-Americans tend to be well-integrated into mainstream American society, and we have so far avoided imposing the kinds of self-defeating anti-Muslim policies that are seen in parts of Europe, like France and Belgium. There is no guarantee, however, that this will continue.
We are hearing far too many calls for draconian crackdowns on the rights and liberties of American Muslims, from aggressive police patrols and surveillance of Muslim communities and neighborhoods, to the closing of places of worship, to roundups and forced loyalty tests, to bans on entry, to deportation.
What happened in Nice could happen here. Decisions that we make, as a government and as a society, will go a long way toward affecting whether more such tragic events will happen here.