Photo Eric Gaillard/Reuters
When you see Reuters photographer Eric Gaillard’s photograph of the small body lying covered in the street, a child’s doll at its side, whatever part of your heart that remains unbroken surely must break now.
It’s the exact image that any terrorist hopes for: a symbol of the end of hope and the crushing of dreams. And when you see the body and the doll, you know you must do something to counter that image. But what?
And this is where your heart breaks again.
Terrorism is a test. It’s an awful test. In France, this latest attack came on Bastille Day, just to raise the stakes that much higher, just so there could be no question that this was an attack not only on a crowd celebrating the holiday but on the very heart of France’s democratic traditions.
Because it’s election season in America — of course, it’s always election season in America — Hillary Clinton made sure to say the words “Islamic” and “jihad” to show that she knows who the enemy is. Donald Trump tweeted “when will we ever learn?” without quite saying what it is we should have learned, but insinuating that obviously Obama/Clinton hadn’t learned it or else no one would be attacking France.
No one failed the test quite so spectacularly as Newt Gingrich, who, in an apparent 11th-hour attempt to hijack the VP nomination from Mike Pence, went so far over the top that the master, Trump himself, must have stood in slack-jawed admiration at all that was wrong with Gingrich’s declaration.
Yes, Gingrich would go on Sean Hannity’s show — where else? — to say we should force every American Muslim to pass a religious test of Gingrich’s making. Yes, he would take us far beyond Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration — a ban that Mike Pence, by the way, has called unconstitutional. This is what Gingrich would say: “Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported.”
Gingrich also blamed the attack on “Western elites who lack the guts to do what is right, to do what is necessary.” What Gingrich finds necessary, apparently, is to kick out those Muslims in America who don’t understand Gingrich’s call to suspend the Constitution.
As I write this, we know the driver of the truck was born in Tunisia and lived in France, that he was known to authorities for domestic violence and rages against his ex-wife but not for any radical ties. We know that the death count from the rampage has climbed to 84, that as many as 50 are in critical condition, that as many as 10 of the dead are children. We know that, whatever the motive, whether ISIS was directly involved or indirectly involved or not involved at all, this was still terrorism at its most brutal.
And so, in no surprise, this latest attack leads to bold talk of declarations of war or of sending in more troops. And yet you wonder what the troops would do, in Iraq or Syria or wherever, to defend against a delivery driver who rents a truck and drives it directly into a terrified mass of holiday makers on Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais.
The smart people who study these things tell us that if ISIS is involved, the fact that ISIS is rapidly losing ground in Syria and Iraq has probably led, in its perverse way, to an increase in terror attacks to distract from the military defeats. That doesn’t make it any less important to defeat ISIS and its nihilist ideology, or any less clear that there needs to be a more cooperative effort to fight terrorism. But it does lead to another question.
If there were an end to ISIS, would it mean an end, or even a decline, in terror attacks launched by a small subset of disaffected young Islamic men? In Europe especially, this is the question that must be answered, even as anti-Islamic nationalism is on the rise. In America, Trump hopes to answer it by grabbing onto the “America First” brand of nationalism without understanding, or at least explaining, the slogan’s sad history.
To say that these are difficult questions is to understate the moment and the challenge. The events — the attacks in Paris, in San Bernardino, in Orlando, in Istanbul, in Nice and more — blur into each other, and it is easy to forget that these are distinct events in different places with different contexts with new victims, each once a living being. That’s what terror is designed to do.
Add the murderous chaos that we saw following peaceful protests on the streets of Dallas — where the blue lights honoring the five dead police officers turned to blue, white and red to honor those dead in Nice — and we hardly know what to think.
Like any tourist lucky enough to have visited the South of France, I’ve stood on the promenade just where the driver, in his mile-long attack, slammed his truck into unsuspecting innocents walking along the sea on a night that has been described as perfect to celebrate being alive in such a beautiful place.
That was the point, I guess: to make us believe there are no safe places. And that even the children, clutching their dollies, are not immune.
Photo copyright Eric Gaillard/Reuters