Europe suffered another tragic terrorist attack Thursday night, as a white semi-truck deliberately ran over scores of pedestrians in Nice, France. Reports put the death toll at 84 while more than 200 were wounded. The truck driver was also armed and apparently opened fire on civilians before ultimately being killed by police. At this point, authorities believe there was only one attacker.
At the time of this writing, there have been no formal claims of responsibility by ISIS or any other group, but the New York Times reports that ISIS occasionally takes as reports as two days before taking credit. We also know relatively little about the attacker himself, though one report claimed he was Franco-Tunisian.
Given how little information has been publicly released so far, it’s possible that this was simply a random act of extraordinary violence. It is far more likely that it was a politically-motivated terrorist attack like the ones in Paris and Brussels that have also occurred over the past two years. Indeed, French President Hollande’s remarks in the wake of the attack mentioned stepping up military action in Iraq and Syria, so it seems reasonable to assume there’s a plausible connection to radical groups in the Middle East.
As this appears to be yet another terrorist attack, a couple observations are worth making.
The False Tradeoff
Typically, the debate following attacks like these proceeds along two dimensions. There is a proposed domestic response designed to reduce the probability of similar attacks taking place in the future. And there is a proposed foreign response to punish the ones responsible – or more realistically, to punish a lot of random people that have the misfortune of living in the general vicinity of wherever the attacker and his friends are from. But I digress.
The domestic discussion takes place along the familiar lines of the liberty vs. security axis. Authorities invariably promise more security if they have more power over individual citizens. Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote is dutifully cited in defense. But a terrified and bewildered population is primed for the security argument, and this side typically wins out.
The problem with the liberty-security debate is that it assumes the tradeoff is actually possible. Just as economists used to believe there was a reliable tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, security experts of today presume that liberty and security have a straightforward inverse relationship. When economists tried to put their views into practice, the theory quickly broke down. In the US, the stagflation of the 1970s, characterized by simultaneously high inflation and unemployment, showed that the previous assumption did not hold. A dangerous and mistaken paradigm was largely scuttled.
The same thing needs to happen for liberty and security. France may provide the necessary evidence to finally make the case convincing.
Recall that France has been drifting ever further towards the security side of the spectrum ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. And even prior to Charlie Hebdo, the country already had some of the strictest gun laws, far stricter than the ones that apply to Americans. (The guns used in that event were apparently procured on the black market.)
The most extreme shift towards security happened after the Paris Attacks in November of last year, which claimed well over 100 lives. After that tragic event, France declared a state of emergency on terrorism, suspending many civil liberties in the process. While originally intended to be temporary, it remains in effect today and failed to prevent this attack. Additionally, yesterday was Bastille Day, a French national holiday on par with the Fourth of July in the US. If anything, we would expect security to be particularly tight on such an occasion, and yet, the attack still wasn’t prevented.
French security forces may simply be incompetent, but that shouldn’t be our primary explanation of how this occurred. Rather, the mandate of preventing terrorism is an impossible one. The Nice Attack tragically illustrates this point. In this case, most of the damage appears to have been done by a truck, a tool which thousands of people in France no doubt have access to every day in their jobs. If we assume a similar, if scaled down, version of this massacre could have been done with any motor vehicle, then the number of people with access to such a weapon would be in the millions. And they have opportunities to commit some form of atrocity any time they pass a busy city street.
Of course, it’s not just cars and trucks that are the problem. There is virtually no end to the possible vulnerabilities in a free society. In light of this, it is unreasonable to assume the French government could prevent terrorism if it just had a little more power. They cannot, and they will not, regardless of whatever new powers they try to acquire.
This is why the liberty-security debate needs to be dismissed. One side of the argument is taking the impossible as a given fact. No useful policies will come from that exercise.
Fighting Them Over There?
Another standard argument in the terrorism debate is the idea that “we must fight them over there or else we’ll fight them over here”. You’ve no doubt heard this one before. And like the alleged liberty-security tradeoff, this concept could seem plausible on its face.
Recent history, however, proves it to be false.
Terrorist attacks are still thankfully rare, but successful high-profile attacks have become more common against Western targets in recent years. One could debate whether this is due to the new interventions unleashed by President Obama, or whether this is just delayed blowback from the belligerence of President George W. Bush. Most likely it’s a combination, but it ultimately does not matter.
The reality is that the current interventions have not had the intended effect. If the goal was to prevent future terrorist attacks, they have failed. And thus, the primary justification for intervention is no longer valid.
If one wishes to continue to promote intervention abroad in spite of this setback, as the French President apparently does, they need a new pretext. It is not making anyone safer. And 15 years into this experiment, no serious person should believe the next intervention is the one that will actually work.
The problem of terrorism does not have any easy solutions at this point. But some proposed solutions are clearly worse than others. As we enter another round of political grandstanding on this issue, it’s helpful to bear this in mind. Whatever the politicians may say, complete security against terrorism is not possible. No matter how much liberty we are willing to sacrifice domestically and no matter how many innocent bystanders we are willing to see bombed abroad in the name of prosecuting the failed War on Terror, this fact will not change.
Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.