By Heather Digby Parton
15 July 2016
It’s happened again — more death and carnage and horror in the streets of a major city. This time it happened in Nice, France a beautiful city on the French riviera where people from all over the area had come down to the famous Promenade des Anglais at the beach to watch the fireworks celebration for Bastille Day, the day the French people come together to celebrate their country. A madman drove a big truck over a mile through the crowd killing at least 80 people, including kids, and seriously injuring dozens more. As I write this, all we know of the motivation is that the president of France has declared that the attack was of a “terrorist nature” and told the country, “all of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorism.” Again. Still.
Police officers and a soldier stand by the sealed off area of an attack after a truck drove on to the sidewalk and plowed through a crowd of revelers who'd gathered to watch the fireworks in the French resort city of Nice, southern France, Friday, July 15, 2016. A spokesman for France's Interior Ministry says there are likely to be "several dozen dead" after a truck drove into a crowd of revelers celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice. (AP Photo/Ciaran Fahey)(Credit: AP)
Whether it’s a lone wolf attack like the one the U.S. just experienced in Orlando Florida or a directly coordinated ISIS plot like the Paris attack a few months ago is unknown. We’ll undoubtedly find out soon enough. At this moment, for everyone but the authorities, it doesn’t matter. Lunacy has ripped apart our sense of security and that, of course, is the whole point. If one of the goals of terrorism is to scare the public into believing that taking part in any normal activity with fellow citizens is a risk, whether it be attending a concert or sitting in a cafe or attending a Christmas party at work, hanging out with friends at a dance club or a fireworks show, the latest iteration of Islamic extremist violence is getting the job done.
9/11 was the most catastrophic terrorist attack in history and the U.S. has recently experienced Islamic extremist terrorism in San Bernardino and Orlando so the sense of being under siege is strongly felt among Americans right now too. But the U.S. is also suffering from an epidemic of violence of the domestic variety such as that we recently experienced in Dallas and before that Roseburg and Charleston and Newtown and Aurora and so on, so our problem with mass killings is actually more complicated in many ways than what is being experienced elsewhere. We have a profusion of Lone Wolves with as many motivations as they have deadly weapons.
But that doesn’t make this particular threat any less chilling. Many countries have been hit with terrorist attacks in recent years. Violence perpetrated against strangers as they go about their daily lives in order to make a point, whether it stems from mental derangement or political/religious extremism, is becoming all too common.
But even though these attacks are happening all over the world, it does seem that France is the epicenter for ISIS coordinated terrorism as opposed to the lone wolf or locally inspired splinter groups. And there are reasons for this, which are being studied and discussed by scholars throughout Europe. France has a long colonial history in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and its experience in Algeria was particularly brutal. It has the largest Muslim population in Europe and French society has traditionally been somewhat culturally intolerant, insisting that newcomers strictly adapt to French mores rather than embracing diversity. All of this has unfortunately created a combustible mixture in a dangerous time.
No country assimilates culturally diverse populations without some resistance, of course, but some are better at it than others. The U.S., for all its horrific history, has generally been one of the best at doing it. The many waves of immigration over centuries from all over the world made American society no less bigoted than anyone else’s but perversely more fatalistic about pluralism, at least most of the time. But we do have periodic xenophobic and nativist spasms and we are in one right now. Indeed, a large number of Americans support Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims. And he’s also very ostentatiously promising to build a big wall to keep people from Mexico and Central America out of the country, much to the delight of millions of his followers. Nonetheless, we still grow up with the idea that immigrants are natural and normal parts of our society even if we are uncomfortable with a specific type of “foreignness” at any given time.
Muslims were easily accepted into American society for many decades even as they kept their own religious traditions. Until 9/11 no one saw anything threatening about them at all. That’s changed, sadly. Now we have people being profiled and investigated on airplanes for writing mathematical equations that some passenger didn’t understand. There are protests against the building of mosques in places where no one would have ever cared before. There’s a lot of paranoia. But we simply have not seen the same level of organized radicalism that they have seen in France, at least not yet. Our underlying commitment to diversity may be hanging by a thread but it’s still here and American Muslims still believe in it too.
France is in the midst of a very serious home-grown Islamic terrorism crisis. It’s unclear how much more its people will take before it turns to draconian solutions. Certainly, there are plenty of people advising them to do it and politicians waiting for the opportunity. And here in the U.S., despite our different scale of violence, we have Trump and his minions pounding the table and making little sense. Let’s hope both countries keep their heads.
This death and destruction will end not because some western power decides to invade someplace and use lethal force to “take out” the terrorists or because government becomes authoritarian and cracks down on dissent. It will end because these radical extremists are sowing the seeds of their own demise by bringing the whole world together in solidarity rather than what they seek to do which is to make people turn on one another. For all the chest beating and political posturing after one of these events, the vast majority of the human population feels tremendous empathy for people they never even thought much about before. They see themselves in the faces of the family members of people from other countries who lost loved ones. Social media connects them instantly to the event and they are linked to it emotionally. Our common humanity becomes real. The more violence these extremists inflict, the more it backfires.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.