After the events in Nice, it’s undeniable: the world has become the opening scene from Children of Men. In that scene, Clive Owen exits a coffee shop, and pauses outside to pour bourbon in his drink (haven’t we all been there?). The coffee shop explodes. Someone has decided to blow it up, for whatever reason.
This is what happened in Nice. To a certain extent, it’s what happened in Orlando.
The killers had different motivations—as far as I know, it is still unclear what motivated the killers in Nice to drive a truck two kilometers through a crowd of people, shooting at them from the window. Perhaps it was in the name of Allah. Perhaps they were mentally disturbed. Whatever the reason, the action was the same. They broke the social contract of our society, which states that we can walk around cities and live our lives in peace.
The fact that these things happened around otherwise peaceful events displays how difficult these types of atrocities are to prevent. After all, how do you prevent the Nice attacks? The killer was a French citizen—not an immigrant. No amount of profiling or closed borders would have prevented it. Gun control helps, but doesn’t solve the problem, since much of the harm was accomplished by him driving a truck—and we can’t outlaw driving.
So it seems like there are few solutions, but that’s unsatisfying, to say the absolute least. When things like this happen, we grapple for solutions, for some sort of prevention or end to the problem, looking for comfort in the order of the world and the knowledge that there will be less senseless deaths. But one lesson that comes with age is that sometimes there are no perfect choices. Sometimes every option before you carries flaws. (One can muse on the worry and stress saved in our younger years if the spectre of perfection hadn’t haunted our decisions, leaving us wondering, after having finally chosen, if the other choice had actually been “right”).
So, do we have any solutions, however inadequate, to prevent these types of atrocities?
Orlando has a possible solution—restrict the types of gun sold in the US, do not allow people who are on the no fly list to buy guns, and have nationwide background checks. But sadly, even with concrete solutions, Republicans in Congress are stonewalling any attempt by Democrats to pass reforms and follow the will of 90% of Americans. Democrats had to filibuster for 15 hours, the 9th longest in our nations history, to force the Republicans to even allow gun control bills to reach the floor.
But what about Nice? It’s hard to formulate a solution when there is no cause—we do not know why the killer in France did what he did. But one wonders if it is due to some sort of social existential crisis, the same that motivated the bomber in the opening scene of Children of Men: to those of a certain ideology, it looks like the world is changing for the worse and there’s nothing individuals can do about it.
From Russia to Britain to China, a widespread isolationist and nationalistic mindset is spreading across the globe, with the rise of Trump and the success of Brexxit being the most obvious examples. Coupled with a growing refugee crises from Syria, and attacks like the one in Nice, one wonders if the guiding principles of tolerance, humanism, and nonviolence, that have generally shepherded the Western World over the last few decades, still have any place at the political and philosophical table.
In times of unrest and crises, resources dwindle and people rally around and protect those they know. This is reasonable: there simply are not the resources to support others when someone doesn’t have enough for themselves and those they care about. This in turn causes an increase in suffering as refugees, victims of attacks, and those dissimilar to us are left without help, forming a type of collateral damage in the wake of the resurgence of an “us vs them” mentality. While this is not the most humanistic point of view—which argues that we should take care of everyone, regardless of nationality, race, or gender—it is arguable considering the current state of the world. Namely, that it is changing and seemingly increasingly dangerous.
And this situation, which allows anti-humanistic views to be rational, is a precarious one. We have moved away from isolationist and nationalistic views over the course of the last hundred years, towards a more global and tolerant world based around humanism and the lessening of violence. But now, this is being dropped in favor of viewpoints that encourage us to see those in need as strangers, with no moral obligation on us to help.
Another delicate idea that can be justified and argued with increasing validity is violence against people to curb their violence, either in the form of domestic or foreign terrorism. Often, people on the right in the US have long argued for retaliation, war and violence against those that threaten us in order to protect ourselves—we kill ISIS troops to prevent ISIS from killing Americans. People on the left generally view this tactic as a bit shortsighted, because if we harm any civilians in our attacks against ISIS, this will help their cause and recruitment tactics. Also, the morality of taking a human life without trial or evidence is suspect, if not outright wrong.
But what should someone on the left, or a humanist in general, do and believe when taking a human life is the only way to prevent more death?
Because the attacks on Nice clearly show that the left’s viewpoint is flawed. The man driving the truck had to be killed by police in order to stop the killing of innocent civilians. It is a clear cut case on the benefits of violence by police against people to prevent violence, a statement that is incredibly charged given the current social state in America. But how else would the killer in Nice have been stopped? There is no time for negotiations or finding a rubber bullet gun when a man is driving an 18 wheeler through a packed crowd.
So it seems as though violence against people is sometimes justified, when it is used to prevent violence against innocent people. This is a nuanced, almost begrudging, capitulation by the left to the argument posed by the right: that killing to prevent killing works. The real concern is what we do with this information going forward. We do not want this one case to increase or justify attacks against innocent civilians, or to justify or increase drone strikes or armed combat.
But one wonders if this can be prevented. Perhaps, given the ideology and self-sacrifice prevalent in our attackers, and the current state of the world, there is no room for nonviolence and tolerance at the global table, as violence begats violence and the world seemingly marches towards war.
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