Mohamed Bouhlel, who turned a truck into a deadly weapon and murdered dozens of people in Nice, was not unknown to police. He'd had run-ins with the law for small offences, and earlier this year had been convicted in an incident of road rage. He apparently beat his wife; she was divorcing him. Neighbours described him as a weird and creepy loner who made them nervous. Originally from Tunisia, he doesn't seem to have been religiously observant or deeply interested in Islam. He wasn't on a terror watch list.
In the wake of the Nice attack, the third major incident of terror in France in a little over a year, there is much talk of a war between the so-called Islamic State and the West – or even Islam and the West. The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said, "We are at war with terrorists who want to strike us." French President François Hollande said that, in response to the Nice massacre, France would reinforce its military actions in Syria and Iraq, to "continue to hit those who attack us on our own soil."
The challenge for France, the most frequent site of terrorist attacks in the past few years, and for the West as a whole, is to put these outbursts of nihilistic violence into the proper context. IS is a threat, and like Al-Qaeda before it, it is real. Most of the terrorist attacks carried out in the West over the past few years have been related to IS or radical Islamism. But the men who murdered have usually understood little about either, and have had limited or no ties to both.
Some people, nevertheless, see in all of this a grand clash of civilizations: The West vs. Islam, and "Us" vs. "Them." Many on both the right and left come up with pat answers fitting their preconceived notions of what's wrong with contemporary society. Why do terrorist attacks happen? For right-wingers dreaming of a clash of civilizations, the answer is simple: Muslims. For left-wingers who fantasize about finally overthrowing the Western system, the answer is that the Muslim world is logically responding to its historical victimization by Western colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. The former see Muslims as a threat to "us"; the latter see the West as a threat to the Muslim world.
But the millions of Muslims living in the West are as overwhelmingly opposed to these terrorists as are their fellow citizens of other religions and ethnicities. The Nice attacker was a French resident of Muslim and North African origin – but so are several million French citizens; so are thousands of French police officers; so surely was much of the crowd on Promenade des Anglais on Thursday night, out enjoying Bastille Day fireworks.
We don't yet know why Mohamed Bouhlel did what he did. If it was tied to Islam or IS, the ties were almost certainly tenuous, as they have been in many other attacks. That does not make those ties less real. But their significance must be put in context, making this something very different from what is usually meant by a war.
Of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the West over the past few years, few have been carried out by someone who had seriously studied or practised Islam, or who had close contact with the Islamic State. Religion and politics were, in most cases, recently acquired pretexts, bringing false coherence and legitimacy to actions driven more by personal shortcomings and inner demons. Just look at Canada's Parliament Hill shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A semi-homeless drug addict who had struggled to find his place in the world, he left behind a video in which he claimed to be paying back "you guys" for Canada's role in Afghanistan, a country he had no connection to and knew nothing about. Having never found the meaning he was searching for in life, he tried to find it in murder and death.
And Martin Couture-Rouleau, who turned his car into a weapon in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, was a young Québécois who suddenly became obsessed with online Islamism. A few decades ago, he might have sought salvation in a cult or a commune. In the 2010s, he self-radicalized online.
The French academic Olivier Roy says we are experiencing what he calls "the Islamization of radicalization." If you don't look closely enough, you could come to believe that Muslims around the world are turning into terrorists, making every Muslim a potential threat. But look again, including at Canada's two signal examples. The ranks of the murderers are filled with petty criminals, troubled people, men and women looking to express their frustration and rage. Daesh isn't sending them here; they are more often searching for an ideology, any ideology, to justify and amplify their urges.
There is no clash of civilizations, nor will there be, unless we so blind ourselves that we accidentally will it into existence. There is, however, a clash between civilization and anti-civilization, between a world of reason and a world of power and blood, and between those who hoping to fulfill life and those seeking to redeem failed lives through purifying deaths.