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This Is How We Must Respond to the Terror Attack in Nice

6 minute read

Here we are again. Dozens dead on a national day of celebration. Bastille day, Ramadan. There’s no way to predict the timing of these attacks. ISIS will hit whenever they can and whoever it can.

This group continues to improve its ability to direct or inspire attacks in faraway places, and their desire to deliver punishment will only grow as the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is bombed into smaller and smaller pieces of territory. (They’ve lost about the half the ground they once controlled in Iraq and about a quarter in Syria.) As with al Qaeda after 9/11, the leadership is dying, but the brand is thriving.

A few hours before this latest attack, French President Francois Hollande had marked his country’s national day with a speech on the dangers of populism, which he called the greatest threat to the future of the Republic. Right or wrong, the attackers in Nice will help populists argue that the president is blind to the much more immediate danger facing the nation. A national state of emergency has now been extended an additional three months.

Read More: How to Help the Victims of the Nice Attack

Next year, France will hold national elections. The far-right Front National, the most successful populists in France, were already polling in the high 20s. The party’s presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has called for closer scrutiny of France’s Muslim citizens, an estimated 8% of the population, and detention of anyone suspected of connection with terrorism or terrorist planning. A weak Hollande will be weakened further. The center-right doesn’t have a clear leader yet. Alain Juppe, their likeliest president candidate, will find himself squeezed between hardline messages from the left and far right.

Most worrisome is that the response in France to this latest attack will not be as unified as following the Charlie Hebdo murders 18 months ago. The deeply felt solidarity that brought citizens together after that massacre is giving way to a deepening sense of insecurity that creates fear, then anger. French society will divide further as next year’s election approaches. That’s not unique to France—it’s human nature. Le Pen sees the political potential in front of her, and we should have no doubt she will seize it.

Read More: Nice Awakes to a Changed City on Morning After Attack

Now to the hardly-more-encouraging regional backdrop. Britons voted for Brexit in large part because E.U. rules on the free movement of people have doubled the share of foreign-born residents in the U.K. just in the past 15 years. These are immigrants from Poland and Romania rather than Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Leave campaign made sure that Europe’s migrant crisis remained a part of the broader Brexit debate. Nigel Farage included Muslim migrants in a widely noticed campaign poster, and Boris Johnson, now Britain’s chief diplomat, once said Barack Obama has a Kenyan anti-colonialist mindset. Never mind that attacks in France and Belgium have been carried out by Muslims born and raised in France and Belgium. “Fear of the other” sells, and right now it’s selling like hotcakes.

What sells in France and Britain will sell elsewhere in Europe. The Alternative for Deutschland party in Germany will narrow Chancellor Angela Merkel’s room for political maneuver. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the most effective leader in Europe in recent years this side of Merkel, will now have a much harder time getting the outcome he wants in a crucial referendum on reform and constitutional revision this fall. Far-right voices will grow louder in the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere. Europe will only get harder to govern at a moment when forceful leadership is crucial. Negotiations between Britain and E.U. leaders over terms of Brexit will be contentious, controversial—and won’t end any time soon.

Read More: French Politicians Say Nice Attack Might Have Been Avoided

External factors won’t help. Syria’s civil war rages on. The deal that Europe has made with Erdogan’s Turkey to manage refugee flows will face new pressures as European governments balk at keeping promises of visa-free travel through Europe for Turks. If it falls apart, a new wave of mostly Muslim migrants will make their way north.

So what about Trump? These factors are unlikely to play out in the U.S. as in Europe, because this sort of nativist populism will always be a tougher sell in a much more diverse country like the United States. If Trump were more competent and coherent, it might be different. But his cringe-inducing reaction to the murder of so many innocents in Orlando by a man who had just pledged allegiance to ISIS demonstrates that he is not a skilled politician and won’t become one in time for November 8.

That said, it’s entirely fair for voters to ask President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton how their experience and political skills have made a difference in this increasingly tumultuous world. A President must know how to heal wounds, but he or she should also offer compelling ideas about to prevent some of these wounds in the first place.

One thing is clear: bombing ISIS onto smaller and smaller pieces may well be an important and necessary thing. But after all these recent attacks—in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and now Nice—it’s not enough to free us of the fear that the ISIS brand is far from finished.

There is no U.S. or international strategy that can solve that problem. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not support ISIS, but there are enough who do—including citizens of France, Britain, Germany and the United States—that we must rethink our assumptions.

What we need to do is find a way to give Muslim citizens everywhere a greater stake in the peace and prosperity of the countries in which they live, one that leaves as little room as possible in which murderers can plot attacks. And at the same time, that strategy needs to ask those Muslims to accept the responsibilities that come with that greater stake. What else can we do?

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