Civil society against terrorism
27 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Bianca Dagheti

After the terror attacks in Paris last November—a carefully coordinated series of assaults carried out by multiple attackers, resulting in 130 deaths—there was intense pain and fear, but also a spirit of unity and resilience. By contrast, since the Bastille Day massacre in Nice—where an attacker, having received help from five men better described as criminals than as radical Islamists, barreled a truck into a crowd, killing 84 people, many of them children—the dominant feelings seem to be impotence and anger.

The French are now frustrated and anxious. They are used to some semblance of security in their cities, which have long been bastions of knowledge and art, not sites of relentless terror. They want to feel safe again—whatever it takes. These feelings are entirely understandable, but they don’t necessarily contribute to effective decision-making.

The ‘whatever it takes’ is the problem. If people feel that their leaders are failing to protect them, they may turn to more radical alternatives; already, populist and even overtly racist political parties are gaining traction in France and elsewhere. Urged on by such forces, people may even decide to take the law into their own hands.

But the authorities already have a lot on their plate. Trying to protect a population from terrorist attacks while upholding the rule of law is, after all, a very difficult task. Individuals, particularly those with mental disorders and a broad interest in violence, can become radicalized quickly, as occurred with the Nice attacker. They may not have committed any crimes, nor established actual ties to terrorist groups, before launching a major attack. Given this, the French authorities can provide no guarantee against further attacks.

This is not to say that the authorities should not be pushed to improve their prevention and response tactics. There is plenty that can and must be done to strengthen security in France and elsewhere. But the ultimatum that some French are now implicitly presenting—guarantee absolute security or watch us cast aside the rule of law and basic principles of openness and equality—does more harm than good.

The French, like all people, deserve to feel safe walking down the street, going out to dinner, enjoying a concert, celebrating a national holiday, and just living their lives. The question is how to restore that sense of security at a time when the risk of a terrorist attack cannot be fully eliminated.

The answer lies with civil society. Ordinary citizens should become more alert to the signs of radicalization, and more educated on how to respond. People should be encouraged to report the possible radicalization of those close to them to the relevant authorities, whether psychiatric professionals or the police.

The goal is not to revive McCarthyism, with people making unsubstantiated accusations against neighbors and friends. Rather, it is to create channels through which people who recognize radical or violent leanings in someone they know can report their concerns. Beyond giving law enforcement a chance to prevent a serious attack, such contributions from civil society could help to reinforce citizens’ willingness to leave anti-terror operations and policies to the authorities.

This model has worked for Israel. Despite regular exposure to terrorist attacks, Israelis retain a sense of relative security, owing partly to the ability of civil society to contribute to their own safety. As a result, citizens are willing to respect what Max Weber called the state’s ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.’

Of course, France is not on the verge of collapsing into chaos, with vigilantes attempting to take on the terrorists. But the relentless fear-mongering of populists, together with genuinely terrifying, tragic, and infuriating experiences, is undermining people’s better judgment, causing them to fall prey to inflammatory rhetoric. And with a presidential election set for next spring, there is strong incentive for self-serving politicians to use the victims of Nice as instruments of campaign strategy.

This cannot be allowed to happen. If the French ultimately succumb to fear, electing populist bigots, the struggling Islamic State (ISIS) will have scored a major victory—one that could potentially lead to a reversal of fortune for it.

And, make no mistake: despite what the populists say, ISIS is losing. Its territory is dwindling, taking with it the dream of a new caliphate spanning the Arab world. But ISIS does have a last-ditch strategy to prop itself up: rapid recruitment. And that effort would receive a major boost from further intensification of anti-Muslim rhetoric or, worse, the election of those who would turn rhetoric into policy.

Already, ISIS recruiters are achieving success, even as the group loses control of cities and provinces in Syria and Iraq. From Orlando to Istanbul to Dhaka, ISIS has found plenty of supporters who are eager to kill in its name. Most recently, two ISIS-affiliated suicide bombers blew up a peaceful demonstration in Kabul, killing 80 and injuring more than 200.

But as long as the ‘enemy’ in the West remains united and principled, ISIS cannot emerge victorious. For France and others, the key is collective action, both at home and abroad, which will require improved links between internal and external security agencies, together with greater risk awareness within civil society, along Israeli lines. Add to that continued strikes against ISIS sanctuaries, and the dream of the caliphate will soon be dead.

It’s bad enough that terrorists want to take our lives; the last thing we need is populists taking our souls. Regaining control over our lives and our destinies means being realistic. Instead of demanding a return to a time before terrorism, we must become more alert to the risks it poses—not only to our safety, but also to our values and commitment to the rule of law—and do our part to minimize them.