Friday, July 15, 2016

It's Mass Murder, but Is It Terrorism?

The wanton killing of more than 80 people in Nice, France immediately set off American politicians, especially Trump, Gingrich and co. but including Hillary Clinton.  They all exploded with plans to go at terrorists, and (in the GOPers case) Muslim terrorists even harder.

Now facts are starting to emerge about the 31 year old man who drove that truck through a holiday crowd.  He was Tunisian, with no known ties to any terrorist group or even much in the way of ties to Islam.

He carried with him in the truck a number of fake weapons and fake explosives, along with real guns.  He has a police record for theft and violence, and according to his father had mental health problems, and struck out violently at anything in sight.  Some of his neighbors said he was hostile and were afraid of him.

His crimes are unimaginably horrible.  In addition to the 84 deaths he caused so far, he injured more than 200, with 52 people still in critical condition, and a reported 25 in coma.

What this appears to be so far is not an act of Islamic terrorism, and perhaps in an effective sense, not of terrorism at all.  The object of terrorism is to cause terror for political gain, or as vengeance for a cause.  What this appears to be is mass murder by a deranged man.  The only "warning sign" anybody has come up with is a characteristic he has in common with other mass murderers--violence against women.

More information may yet yield a tie to terrorist organizations or a terrorist motive, but so far there is none known.  Yet this attack is a pretext for Trump to say as President he will declare war on ISIS.  The multiple problems with taking this literally must occur to junior high school civics students, or they would have in the pre-Pokemon-go era.  He cannot declare war on anybody, the Congress does that, and they can declare war on a country, but not on an organization or even the loose description of acts, such as terrorism.

It's a potent metaphor, declaring war, so just about everybody talks about their war on terrorism, including the president of France.  What the president of France ought to be considering is a way to put up barriers to prevent huge trucks from running through crowds at public events, regardless of the driver's ideology.  It seems entirely possible to me that this mass murderer had no symbolic intention in attacking on Bastille Day--he may simply have seen it as a big crowd opportunity, or even a big crowd of French if he had grievances against the government or the business bosses, etc.

He may well have copied terrorist attacks that involved mass murder, but I'm not sure that makes this terrorism in a way that justifies these responses.  Maybe his rationale was ethnic or racial even, though we may never know.  It may fit the working definition of a hate crime, and it is hard to imagine that hate wasn't involved. But the reaction so far from politicians leaping to conclusions and furthering the panic in populations over terrorism is unseemly at best.  And at worst it could lead to some very bad political choices.

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