The horrific terror unleashed in Nice produces a sense of vertigo. The use of a vehicle to mow down people as an act of terror, is not unprecedented. But the scale of this atrocity is all the more unnerving because it underscores that terror is not just about violence or achieving political objectives or redemption. It is designed to induce a permanent state of fear. The idea that violence can be inflicted anytime, anyplace, with any instrument, under any pretext, under any guise, on any target, is a condition that is very hard to come to terms with. The point, amongst other things, is to induce a deep sense of helplessness and powerlessness. Apart from the sheer anger, that is the sentiment that Nice induces: A kind of numbness no consolation can overcome.
There is a structure to this monstrosity. ISIS, and those inspired by it, are driven by a political agenda. There is a lot of talk of the individual psychological characteristics of the perpetrators, whether in Bangladesh or in France; and deep puzzlement over what motivates such violence. They do not lend themselves to easy psychological profiling or sociological theories. You wonder what kind of rage can induce someone to mow down 80 people.
But the fascination with individual and social milieus should not blind us to the fact that we are dealing with a specific political ideology that legitimises itself in the name of Islam. The debate on whether it is real Islam or not is beside the point. That debate is often a distraction from focusing on the specific ideological nature of this threat: It is a religious vision that seems to see itself as an agent of an apocalypse of some kind. As Graeme Wood had pointed out in the Atlantic, it induces a fascination with danger, violence, struggle, pain and death, against which argument seems almost irrelevant.
It is almost as if there is a bunch of people, tired of the banalities of life, finding meaning by trying to make violent death a banal and commonplace occurrence: Something you should expect around the corner in ways that are utterly senseless. The term random is often used in connection with these killings. But random is a misleading word in this context. They are not random in this sense: They are inspired by a murderous ideology. They are not random in that a concerted plan seems to be in place to constantly seek new recruits; there seems to be some thought behind constantly metamorphosing the institutional structures that produce such violence so that they become ever more elusive. The “loners” in this instance are not alone: They are produced by a vast network of recruitment and motivation.
But the sense of powerlessness that these incidents induce will have serious political consequences. It is important to be smart and not fall into the very same trap that gives this ideology its fascination: A sense of excess; an inversion of ends and means, where violence itself becomes the point; a flattening of all distinctions between the innocent and guilty, an ability to extend the theatre of war to every sphere. This is exactly the outcome they want, and all civilised states will have to strain to ensure that they do no fall into this trap. Terrorists deserve no aid and succour. States need to interdict them. The kind of attack in Nice is disconcerting because it is hard to imagine any state being able to stop them.
No state can be seen not to be doing its best to protect citizens. So this attack raises four political issues. Many liberal publics have made their peace with enhanced state power: Emergency powers, powers of surveillance, abridgements of rights of privacy and so forth. It is not that their value has diminished. But it is one of the means by which we compensate for our powerlessness, by rallying behind the state. This trend is likely to continue.
Second, there is some truth to the argument that the long strategy of fighting terrorism since 9/11, where almost every form of terrorism was an excuse to bolster the means of war, escalate operations all over the world, has serious limitations, to put it mildly. But these incidents have put all those leaders, who have, in a relative sense counselled restraint, like Barack Obama, on the back foot.
Third, there is a concern that these attacks will bolster the right wing in liberal democracies: Le Pen in France, Trump in the United States. This remains to be seen, but the possibility becomes more imminent. But as a matter of political judgment, the liberal centre will have to play this politics very carefully. It is a bit unjust to blame a lack of liberal conviction as the overriding cause of terrorism. One can equally make the opposite argument that with all its faults, a sense of liberality might have prevented more people from being attracted to the murderous. But there is no doubt about this. The liberal optimism that it is easy to run multicultural societies, that mere reason can overcome the fear of difference, that economics and sociology can easily render transparent what produces such fascination with rage and violence, has taken a beating.
The liberal centre will have to find ways of ensuring that its strategy provides at least some recompense for the sense of powerlessness that many feel, because this is precisely the space the right wants to occupy. The right does not have a strategy for dealing with the problem; what it does play into is restoring a sense of power. But the liberals will have to ask why their counsels seem to many like a recipe for powerlessness.
Fourth, despite the war on terror being an almost permanent feature of our times, it has remained hostage to the squabbles of geo-politics. It is still an open question whether these kinds of attacks will ultimately bridge the serious differences between great powers required to deal with this challenge.
The timing of these attacks adds to a sense of fragility. Europe is reeling under multiple crises. It is facing an economic crisis. It is facing an uncertain institutional future. Countries within the EU, particularly France, are facing questions about what kind of historical communities they are. It is important to keep the scale of violence in historical perspective and not be overly apocalyptic. But it is a signal impact of attacks like the one in Nice that even if civilisation may not actually be hanging by a thread, we all feel that it is.