At approximately 23:00 local time, in the southern French city of Nice, Bastille Day celebrations were ruined by a truck that ploughed through celebrating crowds on the Promenade des Anglais, leaving at least 84 people dead and 50 others ‘hanging between life and death’. The driver eventually came to a halt, and eyewitness reports say that as he attempted to shoot police officers, he was himself shot dead. World leaders have quite rightly condemned what has happened, including US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who said she was ‘shocked and saddened by the horrifying attack’.
However, a distinction should be made between condemning the attacks for the lives lost, and condemning them as attacks of ‘an undeniable terrorist nature’, as has been stated by French President Francois Hollande.
The stereotype of terror
Media outlets worldwide have described the events in Nice explicitly as a ‘terror attack’; indeed, the BBC attached to their report of the attack a ‘timeline of terror’, ingraining in the minds of viewers that Islamic State (IS) are undeniably behind the deaths. Whilst this is not impossible, and given that IS members have celebrated the attacks, is perhaps likely, it is wrong at this time to define the events in Nice as an indisputable terrorist attack. The perpetrator, although not officially identified, has been named locally as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year old French-Tunisian. According to reports, he has been in trouble with the police previously for petty crime and allegations of domestic violence, the latter of which barred him from entering the house he had shared with the partner. However, he is not reported to have been on any terrorist watch list, and had not been flagged by the French Fiche ‘S’, the indicator that a person may be a threat to national security..
The repercussions of this premature assumption are both evident and severe. President Hollande has extended the state of emergency in France, was imposed in November 2015 after the attacks in Paris, as well as calling up further army reserves and continuing Operation Sentinel. Hollande’s actions in this respect, although arguably justified, will continue to spread fear throughout France, and Western Europe, a primary goal of terrorist groups such as Islamic State; even if they weren’t directly involved in the attack in Nice, they will undoubtedly benefit from the state of fear that it has promoted. And perhaps more controversially, Donald Trump, the US Republican presidential nominee has declared ‘This is war’, as he condemned President Obama for ‘allowing a lot of people to come in’. In this speech, Trump has further singled out immigrants from Syria and the surrounding area as the proponents of terror attacks in Western Europe and the US, making their integration in Western societies even more difficult. But it is his declaration of war that is perhaps more worrying; it directly implies that he recognises terrorist groups such as Islamic State as armies against whom war can be waged, perhaps according to the Geneva Convention, rather than militant groups who would in no way follow such rules.
The consequences of calling ‘terrorism’ before all the facts are known are dangerous, but it has happened here and will undoubtedly continue to happen.