One man driving a truck, 84 people dead.
Donald Trump wants to declare war on that.
It isn’t real policy. It’s rhetoric, a direct appeal to the gut, to the anger and fear people experience when they watch the reports from Nice.
Hillary Clinton wants us to be smarter, talk to our allies, and maybe hold a summit. Her typically wonky response reflects little understanding of what average Americans feel when they see bodies, strollers, and a stuffed animal strewn along a beach promenade.
Those families in France were celebrating a holiday with fireworks and fun, just as Americans did less than two weeks ago. It could have been the Boston Esplanade, or anywhere we gathered with children and friends to celebrate Independence Day. Trump gets that and he instinctively knows how to play to that dread. If Clinton gets it too, it didn’t come through in the aftermath of the latest horrific attack.
Statistically, the likelihood of a terror attack may still be small, but at a certain point, statistics don’t matter. After terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul, such violence feels possible in any major city. And attacks at home, in San Bernardino and Orlando, instill fear of the lone wolf terrorist next door, making us suspicious of each other. Last week’s murders of five Dallas police officers were not inspired by any foreign terrorist cause, but elevate the fear and suspicion.
Calling for gun control doesn’t work when a truck is the weapon of mass destruction. Calling for voters to try to understand the motivation behind such attacks is fine. But a presidential candidate must also understand those voters who aren’t students of psychology or advanced international relations. As they watch that long white truck roll down a palm-tree lined boulevard, the relations they are thinking of are their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and grandchildren. Clinton needs to get out of her cerebral bubble and start thinking about Chelsea and the grandkids, and how she would feel if they were in the path of that truck-turned-deadly-missile.
Is that playing to the cheap seats? Perhaps, from an elitist viewpoint. But to get people to see your smart vision, first you have to build a bridge for them to cross. Show you understand the fear and uncertainty and then get them to listen to you.
Attacks in places like Nice play to our darkest fears. On July 3, coordinated bomb attacks carried out in Baghdad killed more than 250 people. ISIS took responsibility for what was called the deadliest attack in that city in years. A horrible toll, but without streaming news coverage of death and chaos, without video of people running and screaming, it feels far away. Besides, it’s Iraq, where, sad to say, we expect violence.
It’s still shocking to see a terrorist attack rip apart a concert, an airport, or a beach promenade, all places to which we can relate. But not shocking in the way it used to be. Now with the shock comes understanding that safety is an illusion, no matter where we are.
Trump’s simplistic call for a declaration of war doesn’t change that. Clinton is right. We do need to be smarter about how we think about terrorism, so we can be smarter about how we confront it.
Because no one really does know how to stop one man from getting into a truck and turning it into a lethal weapon, knowing that he, too, will die at the end of his mission. But who is honest enough to say that?