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The Misguided Logic of Keeping Calm in the Face of Terror

The Misguided Logic of Keeping Calm in the Face of Terror

Bastille Day is France’s national day — the day the French Republic celebrates the most iconic moment of the revolution that brought it into being: the storming of the notorious Bastille Prison in Paris on July 14, 1789.

On Thursday, at about 11 p.m., as friends and families reveled in the fireworks on the glorious Mediterranean seafront in Nice, a man drove a truck through them for more than a mile. The carnage killed 84 people, including many children, and left dozens of others gravely injured.

At this point, as we have become bitterly accustomed, political leaders and commentators have already begun rolling out the standard liturgy through which society absorbs the shock of these horrors.

In the first part of the ritual, we will hear that this was a tragedy. The word “tragedy” certainly expresses the grief we all feel. But Nice was not a tragedy. “Tragedy” suggests something senseless, some malign configuration of the stars that produces a wholly unintelligible catastrophe. “Tragedy” is a word we should reserve for truly incomprehensible concatenations of events that silence our ethical judgments. King Lear is a tragedy; most suicides are tragedies; premature deaths from cancer are tragedies; natural disasters are tragedies. To be sure, Nice is a very intense form of private tragedy for the parents and families of the victims. But it is not a tragedy for the French nation, or the West more broadly.

This was instead a crime, planned and perpetrated by a 31-year-old French-Tunisian named Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. The facts are still emerging, but French President François Hollande has said the act “was clearly of a terrorist nature.” On Saturday morning, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, and five people with links to Bouhlel have been detained.

In the second part of the standard liturgy, we will hear a claim that will no doubt be repeated ad nauseam in the following days: Statistically, there is a minuscule individual chance of being killed by terrorism in the West.

Commentators will delight in finding comparisons that capture the apparent absurdity of being frightened by terrorism — perhaps telling us that more people are killed by bee stings than terrorism, or that there is more chance of being killed in a car crash than having your kids crushed by a terrorist-driven truck, or such like. Be resilient, they’ll say. Statistically speaking, we’re good here. Statistically speaking, we should all calm down, keep cool heads, and celebrate peace in the West.

But the statistical approach utterly misses the point. The essence of terrorism is that it is not just any sort of crime. It is a crime against the very fabric of the state, as the timing of the attack on Bastille Day was perhaps intended to emphasize.

To view terrorism through the lens of the personal risk of death implies an impoverished, almost nonexistent, view of the state — that is, the community of citizens that is the basis of all political life. In the statistical view, the state evaporates into a collection of atomized individuals who care only about themselves. A peace that requires — even applauds — a sort of numb, cold acceptance in the face of events like Thursday’s and calls it resilience is a rather pathetic peace to celebrate.

Peace depends on the stability of the political order. That political order has an identity in its own right. There is, in other words, a nation behind the state; when the state is attacked, the nation is attacked. Responding to terror with a cold, individualized, statistical message only opens the doors to Europe’s populists, who then appear the only ones not allergic to the recognition that the nation, a body with its own history, culture, and identity, has been wounded. Their response to that is identity politics, which is the path to social disaster. But until the political mainstream stands up for the idea that the state does have certain basic values that demand the loyalty of all its citizens — not just in terms of the law but in spirit as well — they can’t expect to tame today’s populist zeitgeist.

The counterargument is that the real point of the statistical approach is to avert an over-reaction due to fear: to avoid calamitous policy errors, or the scapegoating of whole communities as a result of the actions of a few. This is right, of course — but to arrive at this view through the lens of individual risk leaves the claim overextended. It overlooks the basic political problem confronting us and presents a faceless and fatalistic version of events. The attack is presented as the work of an amorphous terrorist network, or a mentally unstable protagonist. Where political problems are acknowledged, they are located in routine problems of distributive justice, as if the state is the problem: the failure of the state to provide the future terrorist with an education, or a job, a sense of belonging. These are distinct, and a distraction, from more foundational political problems, which concern the vulnerability of the state’s very fabric.

And this is the failure of the third part of the standard liturgy. In the days and weeks to come, we will hear the fight against terror is not about preserving the specific political values of a community, but a vague stand against all forms of “extremism.” But this is misleading. Western states today do confront, in radical Islam, a genuine threat to the political fabric of the liberal state. Political life in Western states is based on legal rights that attach to the individual; these rights enable all to live together through the mutual recognition of the authority of democratically enacted law and are safeguarded by the state.

Radical Islamic preachers, and those who follow or turn a blind eye to them, challenge the authority of the law when they describe the Western states they live in as immoral and illegitimate for protecting the rights of its people to live as they please within the bounds of the law, regardless of how far that offends or departs from the Quran.

It seems to me that the liberal state has to be a two-way street. While the state must do all it can to address Islamic radicalization and its causes, it should never apologize for its own values to those who refuse to accept them, and yet enjoy the benefit of life in the West. And this approach means recognizing that at its core, the fight against radical Islamic terrorism is a fight about values, about the kind of political life we want to lead, rather than masking the struggle in the language of tragedy and statistic.

This often seems an intractable problem: How can the liberal state, built on tolerance of the other, be intolerant toward intolerance without destroying its own foundations? But it needn’t be a paradox. The liberal values the West uphold are not located in an introspective cultural superiority, but in a basic commitment to human freedom expressed in equality under the law. That was what the French fought for on Bastille Day in 1789, and what for me the West should stand for today: Liberté. Égalité. Fraternité.

Photo credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images