It happened again. Last night, in Nice, in the midst of Bastille Day fireworks, more than 85 people died, mowed down, not by bombs or bullets, but by a madman wielding a rented refrigerated truck. What we don’t know right now is why Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian delivery driver, turned a truck into a weapon of mass murder.
He was, according to the BBC, a nasty sort: wife beater, surly, unfriendly, a loner. He had previous convictions, for threatening behavior, assault and petty theft. Though he was Muslim by birth, he was not exactly a paragon of Islamic morality: guzzling beer at bars and a no-show at Friday night prayers.
But no matter, he was Muslim enough to be labeled an Islamic radical by the pundits, a “cancer” by Donald Trump and a “radical jihadist” by Hillary Clinton. The investigation continues, and may yet reveal that Lahouaiej-Bouhel had ties to the Islamic State or one of its franchises. Maybe he believed that killing some innocent people would impress God enough that He would overlook all the other things in his miserable life that God would have been pissed off about. Maybe he was, like so many mass murderers before him, just looking for his moment of fame before committing suicide by murder-then-cop.
None of that really matters to us though. We are aching again today, as we have ached so many times lately, and we are imploring Heaven or Reason or the police or the military intelligence services for answers. We are tired of the bloodshed, we are tired of the wars that never change anything, we are tired of hearing how disaffected young men and women are taking up bombs or guns, arms or trucks and killing people because of some weird medieval religion that we don’t understand. We are tired of being tired of it all. And we want someone to fix it, now.
We are going to be tired for awhile. We are going be afraid for awhile. We are going to keep reading the lists of victims, and watching the horrifying images streaming across our screens. Because this is not a conventional war that we are engaged in. It’s a war between the 21st century and the 7th, between the values of humanism, both secular and religious, and the values of theocrats who read their Scriptures as both real history and a guide for everyday living.
No Congressional Declaration of War will make a difference, no matter the insistence of Trump or Clinton. You can’t carpet bomb ideas. Besides, we’ve been lobbing bombs and missles at radical Islamists for a couple of generations. We have developed ever more sophisticated weapons, perfected counter-insurgency techniques, deployed drones and computer viruses and assassins; we’ve created the most invasive surveillance system in the history of humanity and none of it has stopped the slaughter.
What we have not done is the most basic thing. We have not asked “Why?” Not as in, “Why did this terrible thing happen to us, the good, the pure, the True Believers in the True God?” Rather, “Why do people believe such evil things and who can lead them away from those beliefs and how?”
This is fundamentally a religious war, but it cannot be won on the battlefield. It is not a war between Christians and Muslims, though theocrats on both sides may wish it so. It is a war between those who read ancient stories of ancient people and believe both that they are historical, and that the Gods of those stories have provided an eternal set of laws that must still be followed under penalty of death, and those who read them as myth, however inspiring they may be.
Those are the battle lines. What we must do now is find the weapons to win.