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Editorial: Grasping at straw men in the wake of the Nice massacre

Police officers and rescue workers stand near a truck that plowed into a crowd leaving a fireworks display in Nice, France, on July 14.
(Valery Hache / AFP/ Getty Images)

Here are what may be the two most important facts we know now about the Tunisian-born freelance truck driver who ran down scores of people on a crowded beachfront street in Nice on Thursday: He was a longtime resident of France, and he had never been suspected of being a terrorist.

A known wife beater and a violent criminal, yes. But a suspected Islamic terrorist, or any other flavor of mass killer, no.

The scary implication of those data points is that it will be incredibly hard to identify where the next attack will come from, because it may very well come from within. Add in the fact that the man identified as the killer in Nice, 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, used a widely available and loosely controlled item for his mayhem — a rented truck — and you start to wonder how public safety will ever really be assured.

In the face of such a threat, people need leaders adept at analyzing data and thinking creatively about intelligence gathering and risk reduction. Sadly, former House speaker and one-time GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (who now serves as a proxy of sorts for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump) offered none of the above on Fox News Channel on Thursday when he called for the United States to deport Muslims who fail his personal litmus test for Islamic radicalism.

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It’s profoundly un-American to bar people from living in this country based on their religious beliefs.

In addition to blaming President Obama and other “Western elites who lack the guts to do what is right,” Gingrich argued that the Nice attack was an outgrowth of a war between Western civilization and radical Islam. Gingrich told Fox News’ Sean Hannity shortly after news of the attack broke, “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door. But we need to be fairly relentless about defining who our enemies are.”

It’s notable how quickly Gingrich leaped to the conclusion that the incident was a particular brand of terrorism, given that the driver of the truck hadn’t even been identified at that point. And he may be proven right. Yet it’s profoundly un-American to bar people from living in this country based on their religious beliefs. (Gingrich later said on Facebook that he wouldn’t target any U.S. citizen based on his or her religious practices, but he would impose a tough, beliefs-based test on Muslim non-citizens in or seeking to enter the country.) And there’s an important distinction between sharia, which refers to a divinely inspired way of life, and sharia law, which is a set of rules drawn up by religious leaders and, as such, interpretations can vary from sect to sect.

Even assuming that Gingrich is referring just to Muslims who favor an extreme version of sharia law, that still doesn’t translate necessarily into support for terrorism. He’s searching for a small group of people, but rounding up a large one. Besides, what are the chances that would-be terrorists would be stupid enough to flunk the test and get deported? And how does a beliefs test today help with someone who’s radicalized tomorrow?

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Instead of casting broad and relatively indiscriminate nets, investigators need to keep sifting the data for patterns that can help identify what sorts of individuals are doing these attacks, where are they getting their weapons (Bouhlel was reportedly armed with automatic weapons, which raises the obvious question of how he obtained them), and how they are financing their exploits. Some researchers say that Omar Mateen, who launched a murderous assault on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., last month, had much in common with a garden-variety mass shooter. If investigators were more attuned to that profile, would they have kept a closer eye on Mateen instead of dismissing reports of his suspicious behavior?

And even then, there may be no practical way to guard against a solo terrorist acting on his or her own initiative. French President François Hollande announced that, instead of lifting the national state of emergency declared after the attacks in Paris, he would extend it for three more months. In addition to continuing the deployment of thousands of extra troops at potential terrorist targets, the measure grants the government greater surveillance power, including the ability to search homes without a warrant and impose house arrest on suspects. Yet those measures obviously didn’t stop Bouhlel.

Terrorism by truck has long been feared by law enforcement »

Some, like Gingrich, argue that the problem is the government’s failure to create a more extensive surveillance state. In his interview with Hannity, Gingrich called for monitoring Muslims’ activity online and their mosques. “I mean, if you’re not prepared to monitor the mosques, this whole thing is a joke,” he said. “Where do you think the primary source of recruitment is?” But early reports question whether Bouhlel even attended a mosque, and San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook stopped going to his two years before he opened fire on his co-workers. (Nor has there been any suggestion that the mosque Farook attended was promoting radical Islamic jihad.)

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So, achieving perfect security would require imposing a surveillance state not just on mosques and those practicing their Muslim faith, as Gingrich has irrationally proposed, but on pretty much everyone. Is that a tradeoff anyone in this country really wants to make? And if so, what would it say about what it means to live here?

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