Spain has suffered its worst terror attack in over a decade, and as usual, too many Americans are rushing to draw the wrong conclusions from another European tragedy.
There were immediate comparisons in the media with the incident days earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a white supremacist plowed into a crowd, despite the fact that car attacks have been used by European terrorists for years. For his part, President Trump, after sending a tweet in which he offered his condolences, sent his usual admonitions about stopping terrorism by “whatever means necessary” and castigated Democrats and judges for refusing to “give us back our protective rights” (whatever that means).
The Barcelona horror, however, should not be a call to imaginary arms, but a sobering reminder of the limits democracies face when trying to prevent terrorist attacks. Americans should remind themselves of three realities in the wake of the Barcelona attack. First, no matter what sort of muscular rhetoric Trump or other leaders deploy, there is no way to eliminate these kinds of low-technology terror attacks. Good police and intelligence work can prevent some of them, and inventive barriers can shift their location. But Western societies are open societies, and short of turning ourselves into prison camps — which our enemies would gladly see us do — there is no way to stop someone from driving a car into other human beings or stabbing people at will.
The reality is that terrorist organizations like ISIS have shifted away from lavish Al Qaeda style operations like 9/11 or the synchronized bombing of multiple passenger aircraft precisely because they are so difficult. The results are spectacular, but these kinds of assaults require a great deal of planning, investment, time — and at least a modicum of skill among the terrorists. The Barcelona attack, by comparison, required a 17-year-old and a van. (The terrorists in Spain also intended to include explosives in the plan, but some of their comrades accidentally blew themselves up, testimony to their ability to inflict heavy casualties by more ordinary means, despite their incompetence.)
Second, we live in a globalized world where the movement of people is now less important than the movement of ideas. At least two of the Barcelona terrorists were Spanish citizens, which is line with similar attacks carried out by native-born citizens in the United States and Europe. Stopping extremists at the border is a comforting thought, but it’s not much of a solution when young men who are already citizens of Western nations by birth can self-radicalize by spending enough time on the internet or making short trips to other countries.
Finally, we need to stop lumping all forms of public violence under the blanket term of “terrorism.” Comparisons to Charlottesville or other attacks by individual men with a history of violence and instability (such as the mayhem created by sniper Micah Johnson in Dallas, would-be assassin James Hodgkinson in Alexandria, and mass killer Omar Mateen in Orlando) are pointless. Barcelona and other terror attacks are the handiwork of networked conspirators engaged in ongoing operations against civilians and their governments.
Of course, these networks seek out lonely and isolated men, a fishing expedition at which ISIS in particular has become especially adept. And we must investigate why these alienated young men kill, often in horrific attacks against their schools or their communities. But not all mass killers are terrorists, and if we default to the methods of counterterrorism to deal with people better understood as deranged losers, we will overreact and spread ourselves so thin that we will needlessly place ourselves in more danger from actual terrorist networks.
Terrorism is a method, and extremists fighting an asymmetrical war against the far greater capacity of governments will never stop using it. There is no “end” or solution to this problem. Struggles with such groups will always be a protracted conflict requiring fortitude and realistic expectations about our own security in a free society. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will stop searching for a sudden and magical victory, and the more wisely we will husband our resources for what is inevitably a long and grinding fight.
This article was published on The Hill. Thomas M. Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School.