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Carnage by the Sea

The city of Nice represents the French love of life. Bastille Day represents the French love of freedom. How cruel, then, that a madman should have brought death and horror to that very city on that very day. On July 14th, 2016, crowds of holiday-makers and locals were out enjoying the warm weather and sea-air in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Many of them were strolling and chatting on the Promenade des Anglais, or the English Walk – its name is a reminder of how British people have been holidaying in Nice for many decades. Then screams rang out. A large truck was driving along the Promenade at high speed, striking men, women and children down and leaving them dead or horribly injured in its wake.

Was it out of control? Had its brakes failed? No, it was obvious to many horrified observers that it was being deliberately used as a weapon, swerving to and fro as the driver tried to hit as many people as he could. One man who realized this chased the truck on a motorbike, making a brave but futile attempt  to knock it off course or open a door and get aboard to stop the driver. But he lost control of the motorbike and ended up under the wheels of the truck. Like many others, he is now in hospital fighting for his life.

The driver of the truck was also shooting at police, who shot back but were unable to stop more deaths as the truck sped many more metres, smashing into and crushing more victims, even as parents threw their children to safety over fences and holidaymakers ran in all directions. Finally, after travelling about two kilometres at speeds of up to 50 km/h, the truck stopped and police managed to get some clear shots at the driver. He was killed, as he no doubt expected he would be, but he had succeeded in turning an everyday vehicle into a highly efficient killing-machine.

The final death-toll has been given as eighty-four, ten of them children, and many dozens more were injured, some of them critically. Nice’s doctors and nurses are now dealing injuries more suited to a train-crash or battlefield than a seaside resort. The psychological toll of the attack will be even more widespread: even those who escaped injured will be haunted not just by the deaths and injuries they saw, but also by the screams of terror and pain that sounded above the engine of the truck. Parents fleeing the scene tried to shield their children’s eyes from the mangled bodies strewn along the truck’s route, but they will not always have been successful.

It would be bad enough if this had been an isolated horror, but it isn’t: France has suffered three major acts of terrorism in less than two years. First, came murderous attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015, then the massacres of Parisians and tourists enjoying an evening out in November. The state of national emergency that began then was just about to be suspended when Nice became the second major French city to experience carnage.

The man responsible has been named as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old French-Tunisian who had worked as a delivery driver. His motives and associations are still being investigated, but the so-called Islamic State terrorist group has claimed him as one of their own. He had been known previously to the French authorities only as a petty criminal, with a police record for violence and theft, and the French intelligence agencies are once again facing heavy criticism for their failure to prevent mass murder on French soil.

Perhaps the agencies are seriously at fault. Or perhaps their task is too great: there are so many potential terrorists merely to identify in France, let alone assess and monitor, that they will inevitably make mistakes. The portents are grim. Although  Lahouaiej-Bouhlel carried several powerful guns in the cab of the truck, he had not needed them to kill eighty-four people. He had simply used the truck. Can France prevent more attacks? The French people, from President François Hollande down, must hope for the best even as they prepare for the worst.