PARIS – After the terror attacks in Paris last November – a carefully coordinated series of assaults carried out by multiple attackers, resulting in 130 deaths – there was intense pain and fear, but also a spirit of unity and resilience. By contrast, since the Bastille Day massacre in Nice – where an attacker, having received help from five men better described as criminals than as radical Islamists, barreled a truck into a crowd, killing 84 people, many of them children – the dominant feelings seem to be impotence and anger.
The French are now frustrated and anxious. They are used to some semblance of security in their cities, which have long been bastions of knowledge and art, not sites of relentless terror. They want to feel safe again – whatever it takes. These feelings are entirely understandable, but they don’t necessarily contribute to effective decision-making.
The “whatever it takes” is the problem. If people feel that their leaders are failing to protect them, they may turn to more radical alternatives; already, populist and even overtly racist political parties are gaining traction in France and elsewhere. Urged on by such forces, people may even decide to take the law into their own hands.
But the authorities already have a lot on their plate. Trying to protect a population from terrorist attacks while upholding the rule of law is, after all, a very difficult task. Individuals, particularly those with mental disorders and a broad interest in violence, can become radicalized quickly, as occurred with the Nice attacker. They may not have committed any crimes, nor established actual ties to terrorist groups, before launching a major attack. Given this, the French authorities can provide no guarantee against further attacks.