Last Friday morning, within a few hours of the street massacre in Nice, I arrived in Paris to report on the way France was responding to the attack. Even before my report went out on that night’s BBC News at Ten, reports of the attempted coup in Turkey were coming in. By Saturday morning, I gave up asking senior French politicians for interviews because British interest in Nice was fading. By Sunday three policemen were dead in Baton Rouge. The next day an Afghan attacked railway passengers in southern Germany and was shot dead. New events crowd in on us constantly, overlaying and obliterating whatever happened yesterday, or this morning, or tonight.
But not, understandably, in France. Nicolas Sarkozy says that France is now at war. So does Le Figaro, which was calling on Saturday for a “pitiless response”. “Merah, Charlie, Bataclan, Magnanville and now Nice . . . How many savage murders and blind massacres before our leaders admit that Islamic fanaticism is engaged in a struggle to the death against our country and our civilisation?”
As Le Figaro’s editorial director whipped himself up into a frenzy of imprecision in his editorial, I was reminded of a television interview I once did with Margaret Thatcher at the height of the IRA’s terror campaign. I was never an admirer of hers but on this occasion I thought she was magnificent. “War?” she said as the camera turned over. “War? This isn’t a war. These are criminals, murdering and injuring decent people. We’ll find them and the courts will put them in prison, and there’s an end to it.”
It worked. A lot of other things had to be done, including addressing the serious grievances of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and changing the whole basis of life and society there. Yet after its appalling early mistakes the British government stopped declaring war and demanding pitiless responses. On the contrary: life went on as close to normal as possible throughout the IRA’s bombing campaign. There’s no doubt that some shameful things happened in secret, but the basic principle – that a civilised society should remain true to its values even when it’s under attack, and perhaps especially when it’s under attack – was maintained; and the IRA was eventually beaten.
There are dangerous characters in any country and they require monitoring and infiltrating. The Bataclan attackers in Paris last November were a disciplined group with a clear plan. But some of the worst incidents in Europe have been the work of deranged loners. Le Figaro called Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the mass murderer of the Promenade des Anglais, “a soldier of the caliphate”. Bulls**t: he was just a sad, nasty little character with a propensity for violence against women, who had stopped taking his medication and wanted to validate his craziness. No doubt the Afghan teenager who was shot dead on the German train after going berserk with an axe was deranged, too, but that didn’t make him a soldier in anyone’s army. Attacking people in the street is a horrible, vicious fashion, just like storming on to a university campus in America and shooting people with an assault rifle, or stabbing children to death in Chinese schools. You have to take proper precautions and eventually, with luck, the fashion fades away.
However, the security authorities have to get their act together. This is where the French system has fallen down. According to the right-wing president of the Nice regional council, there were only 45 policemen on duty at the 14 July celebrations. No significant roadblocks had been set up, and it was pathetically easy for Lahouaiej-Bouhlel to steer his lorry round the concrete barriers and get on to the boulevard.
The previous week a government commission under a centre-right politician, Georges Fenech, reported that France simply wasn’t very good at defending itself against terrorism. The commission recommended the establishment of a single national counterterrorism agency, in place of the six competing and, by all accounts, mutually hostile intelligence organisations. Fenech said France’s inadequacy was like equipping an army with lead boots. Yet directly after his report came out, the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, rejected the notion of overhauling the intelligence services.
As many as 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France since the start of last year. “Something bad seems to happen every six months,” said a woman I filmed outside the Bataclan, “and we don’t know how to stop it.” France feels itself uniquely targeted. Yet the British example shows that Fenech was right and that it is possible to stop terrorism. After the 7 July 2005 bombs in London, an inquiry showed – in terms remarkably similar to Fenech’s – that intelligence about the culprits hadn’t been shared properly. Regional counterterrorist units were set up across Britain and the Security Service, MI5, opened up to the other agencies to a remarkable extent. The long rivalry between MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, was defused.
Now, once a week, MI5 and MI6 hold a meeting with GCHQ and the police at MI5’s headquarters, at which they share intelligence and agree what action to take on it. Extremist groups have been infiltrated with great success. As a result, Britain hasn’t suffered a mass-casualty terrorist attack since 2005, though 40 plots have been foiled in that time – including seven in the past 18 months. Sometimes, of course, we’ve just been lucky: a car bomb was planted outside a London nightclub in 2007 but it was so poorly assembled that it didn’t go off.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who despite his last-minute radicalisation would certainly have been picked up under the British system, rented his white lorry, drove it past the inadequate police check-points, and murdered 84 people who were just out to enjoy themselves. Forget about pitiless responses and declaring war on abstract nouns: what is required is proper, joined-up policing. That’s how a civilised society protects itself best.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He tweets @JohnSimpsonNews
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt