By Prof Christopher Michaelsen
A week after the truck attack in Nice it remains unclear whether the perpetrator, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had any links to Islamic State or whether he was a volatile and violent petty criminal gone mad.
Comments by the prosecutor heading the official investigation into the incident suggest the latter. Yet, in the hours after the attack, French President François Hollande was quick in pledging to expand France’s counter-terrorism efforts at home and abroad.
Declaring that “nothing will make us yield in our will to fight terrorism”, he vowed to “further strengthen our actions in Iraq and in Syria”. In Nice, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve added that France was “at war with terrorists” who wanted to “strike us at every cost and who are extremely violent”.
These pronouncements followed familiar rhetoric already employed in the aftermath of the two major terrorist attacks in Paris last year when Hollande undertook to “lead a war” that was going to be “pitiless”. Other Western leaders have not shied away from using equally dramatic language in response to recent attacks and hostage situations, whether connected to IS or not.
Speaking in the aftermath of the Brussels bombings this March, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel proclaimed “unity against those who have chosen to support a barbaric enemy of freedom, democracy and fundamental values”. For German President Joachim Gauck the vehicular assault in Nice amounted to an “attack on the entire free world”.
The statements of political leaders are regularly accompanied by hysterical media reporting. On television we see a variant of “terror”, “horror” or “massacre” flashing across the news ticker of all major stations. In the print media we are informed that we had just witnessed whatever country’s “9/11 moment”.
Even where links to IS or organised terrorism are tenuous – as in the case of the Lindt Café siege in Sydney – we are told that the attack stood for the “instant we (had) changed forever”.
What dramatised, martial rhetoric by politicians and sensationalist media reporting have in common is that they play into the hands of IS and its narrative of conflict. What is more, they cause unnecessary alarm and fear among the public and deflect from the fact that we are facing complex challenges that require a well-thought-out and multi-dimensional response.
Military force may well be part of that response. But intensifying airstrikes in Syria and Iraq as a reaction to the Nice attack is as counter-productive as it is illogical. If Western governments were serious about attempting to break the seemingly escalating circle of violence, careful consideration would have to be given to the various causes and dynamics of conflict.
One key aspect of that dynamic concerns controlling the tools of violence.
Arms sales to countries in the Middle East and Africa have long been documented as a major factor for political instability in these regions. Granted, reducing arms exports does not prevent a vehicular assault like the one in Nice last week. But in the medium term it is likely to assist in de-escalating many conflicts which, rightly or not, feature prominently in Islamist propaganda and play an important role in jihadi recruitment.
Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the volume of international transfers of major weapons in 2011-15 was 14% higher than in 2006-10. The five biggest exporters in 2011-15 were the USA, Russia, China, France and Germany. Seven of the 10 largest exporters of major weapons were Western democracies (US, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain, Netherlands).
France, for instance, exported arms to 78 countries in 2011-15. A total of 27% of arms exports went to countries in the Middle East, 18% to Africa and 15% to Europe. French efforts to increase arms exports also led to several major contracts in 2015, including the first two firm contracts for Rafale combat aircraft, 24 each for Egypt and Qatar.
The picture in Germany is similar. Earlier in July, the Merkel government reported that German weapons exports in 2015 reached their highest level on record and have continued to grow since, despite a pledge to curb such exports to restive regions.
Last year Berlin granted licences for exports of €7.86 billion ($11.5 billion) of weapons, nearly double the €3.96 billion ($5.77 billion) granted in 2014.
Most of the large German weapons deals were concluded with allies in Europe and NATO. But they also included significant sales to countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. More directly related to the international campaign against IS, it has been reported that battle rifles supplied by the German government to Kurdish Peshmerga fighting IS actually ended up on arms markets in Northern Iraq.
Curbing the global arms trade, particularly to regions of conflict, calls for long-term solutions which exceed the election cycles of Western democracies.
It is a challenge that requires taking on big business and powerful interest groups. If done seriously, a drastic reduction in arms exports would also have adverse economic effects in the exporting countries and ultimately cost jobs. It is thus doubtful that governments in Europe and elsewhere have the courage and political will to go down that path.
In the meantime, we need to realise that terrorism has been a permanent fixture in human history.
Attacks of determined individuals will remain unavoidable. We can, however, control the way we respond to such attacks in the short-term. It is in this regard that political leaders and journalists need to practise moderation and self-restraint as a matter of urgency.
The chances of dying in a terrorist attack continue to be much lower than those of drowning in a bathtub. This is the message that our governments and media outlets ought to convey in times of crisis.
It is a message that may not serve their political interests. And it arguably doesn’t sell more newspapers either.
Dr Christopher Michaelsen is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law, University of NSW, and a member of Civil Liberties Australia. This article appeared first in Fairfax Media online on 21 July 2016.