Terrorist or psychopath? As if we had to choose one or the other. As if all terrorists were not (and have not always been) psychopaths. As if the Nazi henchmen of the 1920s and ‘30s, the Hitlerian paramilitary squads that hounded democrats and Jews, the SS brutes responsible for the ideological indoctrination of the German masses were ever anything but psychopathic monsters up and down the hierarchy. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the truck-driving killer who cut short 84 lives last Thursday in Nice, was a terrorist and a psychopath. He was unstable, deranged and a member of the criminal army who heard Daesh’s call, published in the organization’s propaganda magazine: Use a truck “like a lawnmower”! Go into the “most densely populated places”! To “maximize the carnage,” gather “as much speed as possible while maintaining control of the vehicle”! And bring along firearms to finish off survivors once the truck is stopped! No contradiction there. These are the two faces of barbarism.
Was he a “lone wolf”? We seem compelled to repeat, ad infinitum and ad nauseam, as if to reassure ourselves, that as far as we know at present, the killer was acting alone, had not been flagged as a security threat, and had no apparent link with Daesh. As if that were the question. As if Daesh were not the exact opposite of an entity with which one would be clearly affiliated. And as if the innovation in its mode of operations were not precisely that it did not need, in order to function, a central committee to give orders, assign responsibilities, and set targets. Daesh is the caliphate plus Twitter. It is the Uberization of opportunistic mass terrorism. It is influence without contact, power by contagion and suggestion. The ultimate stage of a nihilism born in the in the mud and the mist of the 20th century and nearing the end, perhaps, of its mad course. One can be a soldier in the new army without ever being trained, recruited or even approached.
Who is responsible? Oh, the anxiety with which we awaited the claim of responsibility for the crime! And the buzz it generated when it came! Followed by byzantine debates about its wording, its timing, and the fact that, this time around, the invisible committee took not 24 hours but 36 before issuing its statement! The truth is that none of that matters any more now than it did in the days of the Red Brigades, which sometimes neglected to claim responsibility for their crimes and sometimes, when it suited them, took credit for the acts of rival organizations. Even more so with Daesh, this web of gangsters with no code and no honor who have no reason to fit themselves into the neat boxes created by our experts. On some occasions the terrifying effect of an act is magnified by a claim of responsibility (even if the claim is false). On others the terror is greater if survivors are left confused and in doubt. I can imagine the amusement in Mosul at the naïveté of our Daeshologists poring over every word of their slapdash communiqués. Islamism is opportunism. Lift the rock of radicalism and one finds the makeshift rhetoric of a gang that fears neither God nor man.
What? An Islamist who did not attend a mosque or observe Ramadan? Who salsa danced and drank beer? Well, yes. Because Islamism is not a religion but a form of politics. More precisely, it is a version of Islam only insofar as it is first and foremost a variant of the generic form of politics that for a century has been known as fascism. So that whereas the political link is intense, essential, and defining—whereas jihadism has been from its origins a specific and explicit form of Nazism—the religious link, the link with faith, is fuzzy and serves merely as a back-up. Indeed the fuzziness grows as one leaves the theological-political center for the vast and nebulous periphery in which these ultimate barbarians operate. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was the proof of that. He was the face of a Daesh that, one hopes, is approaching the limits of its possible growth, where, appropriately, its watchwords lose their distinction.
Why Nice? Why France? What did we do to find ourselves once again in the line of fire? Another false question. The very definition of the false question. One that generates answers—as is always the case when one begins with the wrong question—in which absurdity (for example, the myth of “reprisals” undertaken ostensibly for a French military engagement in Syria that began after, not before, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market) contends with an inclination toward submission (evident in calls to repeal France’s ban on wearing the veil in public, to relax the principle of secularism, to come to terms). The truth is that jihadism strikes everywhere. It has no shortage of targets, and these are chosen purely opportunistically. Orlando one day. Tunisia or Bangladesh the next. Or Brussels, Istanbul, or Nice, if that is where jihadism detects vulnerability. It is a mistake to attribute to this array of randomly chosen targets more sense than it has. And it is an even worse mistake to give jihad credit for having a mind that is programming its offensives as one might play a game of chess. These people derive their strength from our weaknesses. And the temptation to overinterpret, to see subtle signs everywhere, to lend to these mean souls the dignity of a logic they do not have—that is another of our weaknesses.
Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy