In the hours after the terror attack in Nice, France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls riled many critics when he said that “times have changed, and France should learn to live with terrorism.”
On Twitter, one person called the statement “crazy,” while another said it was “a sad indictment on our times.” Heat Street, a conservative news-and-commentary website, chided it for its “defeatist tone.”
The timing of Valls’ statement may have struck some as insensitive, but to others, there was a sense that it reflected reality.
“I agree with it,” said Colin Clarke, a political scientist at Rand Corporation, a global policy research group based in Santa Monica, California. “We all have to learn to live with terrorism. It’s a different paradigm in the [post-]9/11 world.”
Daniel Benjamin, a former coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, called the statement wise.
“I think it’s good that leaders are working to cultivate resilience and not creating illusions that there are a series of buttons that can be pushed and terrorism will go away,” said Benjamin, who is now the director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Obviously, we have to take it seriously and not get complacent in the face of a threat, but I think it’s a wise message.”
French officials said Friday that 84 people were killed and 52 were critically wounded when a man drove a large truck through a Bastille Day celebration in Nice late Thursday. French police identified the attacker as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, a French-Tunisian who lived in Nice.
Similar sentiments in U.S.
President Barack Obama struck a corresponding note, saying Americans and allies could not give in to fear, turn on each other or sacrifice their way of life.
“We will not be deterred,” he said. “We will not relent. We are going to keep working together to prevent attacks and defend our homeland.”
Blaise Misztal, director of national security at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, noted that Obama’s and former President George W. Bush’s calls for resilience in the face of terrorism have not been all that different from the French prime minister’s.
“President Bush advocated just such an approach of continuing to go about our daily lives after 9/11,” Misztal said via email. “President Obama has tried to make a similar point in saying that more people die from bathtub accidents than terrorism, and Israel has long ago come to terms with the fact of terrorism.”
'Inured to the horror'?
In a blog post about the attack, Danielle Pletka, a terrorism expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative public policy research group in Washington, wrote that “we’re not shocked” by terrorist attacks anymore. That’s because “as terrorism becomes a regular feature of our lives, we’ve become inured to the horror and indifferent about the solution.”
“The images from Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka and now Nice elicit universal horror and condemnation, as they should,” he said via email. “It is that moral outrage that drives our determination that ISIS and its ideological brethren must be defeated.”
He added that the “normalization of terror attacks” should be part of any counterterrorism strategy.
“Groups like ISIS are trying to inspire fear in our societies and undermine the openness and freedom they despise in democratic societies,” he said. “Learning to live normally among the potential for terrorism is the best way to deprive it of its power.”
But after the December attack in San Bernardino, California, U.S. public concern about terrorism shot up to levels not seen since 9/11. A March 2016 Gallup poll showed that 48 percent of Americans worried a “great deal” about possible terrorist attacks in the U.S., a level higher than the 2004-2015 period.
A June 2016 NBC/Survey Monkey poll taken after the Orlando, Florida, shooting — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history — showed that the share of Americans who viewed terrorism as the most important issue to them doubled to 24 percent from 12 percent prior to the attack. The poll also showed that 51 percent of Americans worried that they or someone in their family might become a victim of terrorism, while 48 percent said they were not worried.
“These numbers are off the charts,” Benjamin said.
Following the attack in Nice, American anxiety over terrorism is likely to edge higher, but the U.S. remains less vulnerable to the type of complex, large-scale terror attacks that have struck Europe over the past two years.
The U.S. is geographically isolated from the Middle East, has better law enforcement and domestic intelligence, and has lower levels of radicalization among an immigrant population that is much better integrated into society than is the case in Europe, Benjamin said.
“These can’t be reasons to be complacent, but the threat here is lower than it is in Europe,” he said.