Op-ed: Witness to Nice

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, July 19, 2016 5:13pm
  • Opinion

We were on vacation. Nice is a favorite destination of ours. That night, we decided to watch the Bastille Day fireworks from our rental-apartment balcony, overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean. It’s a good thing we did. As the last Roman candles sputtered and the thousands of spectators started to depart, a truck driven by a madman ran some flimsy barricades, jumped onto the crowded walkway just below our window and slammed into the pedestrians. Witnesses say he deliberately ran down men, women, children.

My wife and I had turned away and were in another room when we heard the screaming below. Thousands were stampeding, running literally for their lives. Both of us are journalists, so we did what reporters do: We raced down the stairs and stepped into the dark uncertainty, trying to understand what had happened.

I emphasize that we did not see the truck slaughter the innocents. It was already more than a mile away, its murderous driver killed in a hail of bullets during a gunfight with police.

What we did see was gruesome. Dozens of bodies were scattered around, the injured were pleading for help. Worst of all were the screams of family members who had seen their loved ones suddenly mowed down after a night of celebration at one of the planet’s loveliest spots. The images will inhabit my nightmares forever.

Like any newsperson, I’ve seen catastrophes before, including man-made ones. When someone asks how I handle my feelings, I truly don’t want to answer. It’s not that I want to suppress my feelings, or engage in denial or some other psychobabble label. It’s just that however much emotional pain I need to handle, it is nothing compared with the victims’, and to the tortuous agony that their survivors will deal with all of their lives.

I do think we all need to reflect on the ingrained feelings of futility that we all share because of our inability to stop the carnage, to effectively contain the maniacal terrorists. They may be insane, but if they’re willing to pay the price, they will find a way to commit their cowardly mass murder.

As my wife and I headed to dinner several hours before the fireworks show, we barely noticed that there were police everywhere, carrying their automatic weapons. Sadly, that has become commonplace. France, the rest of Europe, everywhere else and certainly the United States have become security-armed camps. And yet, somehow, this fanatic — if that was what he was — had been able to come up with a surprise, a decidedly low-tech surprise, using a truck as a homicidal projectile.

So now, we have to add trucks to the growing list of mass-murder weapons. I’ve always been amused by the saying promoted by officials: “If you see something, say something.” Will we now need to say something about every truck? The answer is that we are now forced to be suspicious, make that frightened, of everything. We always need to be at least a little bit afraid as we move about our ordinary lives. For good reason.

In that regard, the terrorists have succeeded, as they have every time demagogic politicians stoke our fears and scapegoat those who are only trying to be normal citizens.

To a lesser degree — certainly less than the immediate victims, whose lives are shredded by the psychopaths — we all suffer.

It has become all too monstrously routine. We react with horror, but then soon everything goes from mournful to normal, until still another bloody attack. Law-enforcement leaders will assure us they are improving their tactics, but inevitably they will encounter some other surprise. There seems to be little we can do short of becoming a police state.

As a reporter, I’ve covered wars and have witnessed the tragedy of battlefields. These days, the entire world is a battlefield, where lethal brutality can also be inflicted at any moment. In Nice, my wife and I witnessed that firsthand.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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