Terror on the Bay of Angels

AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani

A French flag stands stall amongst a floral tribute for the victims killed during a deadly attack, on the famed Boulevard des Anglais in Nice, southern France, Sunday, July 17, 2016. 

Nice is a small gem of a city. With a population roughly half that of Boston, it lies sandwiched in a thin strip of littoral between the imposing Maritime Alps and the glorious Bay of Angels, Nice’s private patch of Mediterranean azure. The city combines a raunchily democratized remnant of 19th-century French elegance with a dollop of olive-tinged Italian bravado, complete with socca, the distinctive Niçois variant of the pizza (Nissa la bella actually belonged to the king of Sardinia prior to the 1860 Treaty of Turin, and it was part of the Italian zone of occupation in World War II). The sea has carved out a breathtaking crescent of coast between the Nice airport (soon to be owned by a Chinese investor) and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, playground of the world’s wealthy, where Noel Coward once attended a “marvelous party” he later immortalized in song. Beyond the cape lies the principality of Monaco and the casino that preceded Grace Kelly as that microstate’s premier attraction.

Along much of its length the angelic bay is lined by a broad pedestrian walkway known as La Promenade des Anglais in homage to the gentry who flocked there to escape the dreary English winter. In the 19th century, the grand hotels and lavish casinos that lined the Promenade drew rakes, gamblers, crowned heads, and bejeweled women not just from the British Isles but from all the capitals of Europe. Russians found the warmth of the Riviera especially congenial, and the Russian community remains to this day a presence, signaled by an ornate Orthodox cathedral.

As befits any gambler’s Mecca, the city also had its louche side: it was once France’s Hollywood, the motion picture capital of Europe. It was also in Nice that Marcel Proust situated the backstory of Odette de Crécy, the ravishing beauty sold by her mother to gentlemen of means in search of female companionship. Odette grows up to divert the quintessential Proustian hero Charles Swann from his never-to-be-written treatise on Vermeer and eventually becomes his wife and the mother of Marcel’s first love, Gilberte. Upon spotting the now quasi-respectable Mme. Swann, cleansed of her scarlet youth and riding in a splendid carriage in the Bois de Boulogne, one gentleman turns to another to reminisce about the day long ago when General Patrice Mac Mahon handed in his resignation: That night, he fondly reminisces, he shared the spectacular Odette’s bed in Nice, only to be awakened the next morning by a crier shouting out the news of Mac Mahon’s valediction.

The news from Nice this past week came as a very different sort of wake-up call. On Bastille Day night, with large crowds gathered along the Mediterranean to celebrate liberté, égalité, and fraternité under a night sky brightly lit by fireworks, the Promenade that had once served as a seaside fashion runway to the cream of Europe had been transformed into a scene of unbelievable death and mayhem. For the third time since January 2015 (or fourth if one includes the Brussels airport attack, perpetrated by a group with ties to France), France had been targeted for mass murder. In between, there had been less spectacular but equally grisly attacks: the murder of a policeman and his wife in their home, the beheading of the owner of a trucking business by one of his employees. To say nothing of the slaughter of French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren some years earlier, of the cold-blooded killing of visitors to the Jewish Museum in Brussels, of a thwarted attack on railway passengers traveling between Brussels and Paris. … The litany has become numbingly familiar.

But there was a particular horror to the Nice attack. It was not only that there were so many children among the victims. It was not only that it came on a day when the president had announced that he would soon end the state of emergency under which France has been living since last November (and will now go on living for at least another three months). The police and the military were exhausted, he said. People had long been murmuring that the show of heavily armed force was a sham, since everyone knew that terrorists could strike anywhere, not just at the railroad stations, synagogues, and tourist sites designated for special patrols.

On July 14, Mohamed Bouhlel proved the scoffers right. Driving a rented 19.5-ton truck, he barreled down La Promenade des Anglais unmolested for a period of at least 45 seconds (according to police—others insist it was longer), mowing down victims right and left. The road was ostensibly closed to vehicular traffic, yet Bouhlel easily circumvented an inadequate police barricade by pretending to be delivering ice cream, and for all those agonizing seconds no one was able to stop his lunatic rampage, even though Nice, with its extensive system of video surveillance, is supposedly one of the most “securitized” cities in France. It is hard to imagine a more effective demonstration of the difficulty of fighting what Prime Minister Manuel Valls called France’s “war on terror” than Bouhlel’s two-minute reign of precisely that.

Despite his use of the “war” metaphor, Valls warned the nation that it “must learn to live with terror,” because, try as it might, the government simply could not guard against every eventuality, especially if, as in Nice, people with no prior history of radicalization or Islamic extremism decide to become mass killers from one day to the next. Unlike the perpetrators of previous attacks, Bouhlel was not among the thousands of “potential” terrorists included in the so-called S File maintained by the French security services. Although he had had numerous scrapes with the law for offenses ranging from wife-beating to armed robbery, he was not (as of this writing) known to have had contacts with any radical group or terrorist organization. He appears, said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, “to have been radicalized in an extremely short period of time.” ISIS’s announcement that Bouhlel was one of its “soldiers” seems to have been purely opportunistic.

Here, of course, “radicalized” is but a manner of speaking and in effect a confession of inability to decipher the unfathomable mysteries of the human heart. What is clear is that Mohamed Bouhlel, a man rejected by his battered wife and in the throes of divorce, had concluded that his life was no longer worth living. He chose to write his suicide note in the radical lexicon of the day, a lexicon of indiscriminate carnage and slaughter. But had he actually been reading the dictionary of radical Islam, or was he a mentally fragile man, as his father claimed, who simply donned the robes of jihad to sanctify his callous exit from this world?

Did this Tunisian immigrant also have a political motive? Was he an enemy of France? Did he wish to strike at the roots of the Fifth Republic, to tear it from its native soil in order to prepare the way for the “invasion” of another “civilization,” as the use of the term “radical” might imply and as proponents of the thesis of the Great Replacement from Thilo Sarrazin to Renaud Camus insinuate?

Perhaps the distinction is meaningless. Suicides often cloak their self-destructive impulses in more heroic guises, from war to revolution to, in the current era, radical jihad. Emile Durkheim’s famous late-19th-century study of suicide suggested that we look to “social facts”: members of alienated communities—and many immigrants in France can fairly be said to be alienated from the mainstream—are more likely to enlist in nihilistic and ultimately suicidal causes than members of well-integrated communities. Tunisian youths in general (and not just immigrants) are overrepresented among jihadis.

Yet all such speculation about causes and motives is ultimately idle, because what really matters is not the grievances of the alienated killers but the reaction of the victimized host community. Terrorism has been termed a weapon of the weak or, to put it more vividly, “the strategy of the fly”: The fly cannot smash up all the china in the shop on its own, but if it persistently and indefatigably irritates the bull by buzzing in its ear, the bull might just do the job for it.

While it is no doubt obscene to compare a man who has just taken the lives of scores of innocents to a pesky insect, the obscenity is intended to make a point. With each new attack in France, one feels the mood of the country changing. After Charlie Hebdo there was soul-searching, and some saw the national outpouring of grief in the days that followed as a cathartic moment. I was skeptical, not because I believe catharsis impossible but because I think it is rare and all too easily undone by repeated atrocities, which are all too readily mounted. I had also seen how righteous anger had deformed my own country after 9/11, leading us into a misconceived war of aggression and unprecedented justification of torture at the highest levels of government.

France is not immune from such anger—far from it. And the desire for retribution has been mounting steadily. If France had America’s military capabilities, it would long since have invaded Syria rather than merely participated in the bombing of ISIS targets. Whether such an invasion would have been less counterproductive than Bush’s folly in Iraq no one can say. But France’s problem—Europe’s problem—is very different from ours. Its enemies are within the gates—a minority of a minority, to be sure, but still an intimate presence, a cancer rather than an infection and therefore calling for a different treatment regimen. I do not yet see what form that regimen might take, but I am increasingly worried that the terrified patient will turn in desperation to some alternative remedy even more deadly than the disease. The prime minister recommends that his people learn to live with terrorism, but to follow his advice will take more fortitude than may be available, as tempers rise and solidarity frays.

This is a moment of particular danger, because many in France feel that their government has been especially ineffective over the past two presidencies. Not only has it failed to protect its people from terror, it has also failed to find an effective response to economic crisis or to propose policies that are but minor variations on the failed solutions of the past. There is a sense that neither of the two major parties—the Socialists on the left or the Republicans on the right—has anything new to offer. In such gloomy times, the temptation to leap into the unknown is strong. Will the French resist? I used to have faith that they would. I am no longer so sure.

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