It doesn't take much to spread terror. You don't need fancy weapons or a network of co-conspirators. All you need is a truck, a homemade bomb, a knife or an axe to inflict maximum fear.
After the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France was already reeling. But last week's murder of a gentle 85-year-old priest ratcheted tensions to a whole new level. Rev. Jacques Hamel was celebrating mass for a small group of parishioners when two teenage jihadis burst into the church. They forced him to kneel before the altar as they cut his throat. They made a video of themselves as they did it.
Father Hamel was a martyr in the war on terror. The killers – both 19 – had made a video pledging their fidelity to the Islamic State. Both were well known to police. One had done jail time for trying to get to Syria on two separate occasions. At his parole hearing, the prosecutor warned he was a flight risk. But the judge bought his story that he was ready to turn over a new leaf.
Germany, which has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, has until now been relatively free from terrorist attacks. No more. Last week a failed Syrian asylum-seeker blew himself up with a homemade bomb in the Bavarian town of Ansbach, and injured 15 people. He had a history of involvement with radical Islam, and was supposed to be deported to Bulgaria.
The Ansbach bomber was just the latest in a spate of German incidents in the past month. In Wuerzburg, a 17-year-old, who identified himself as an Afghan when he registered as a refugee, rampaged through a train with a knife and an axe, severely wounding several people and reportedly shouting "Allahu akbar." In Munich, a German-Iranian teenager went on a shooting rampage, killing nine people and himself. In Reutlingen, a pregnant Polish woman was hacked to death by a 21-year-old Syrian refugee.
The Munich killer, who was obsessed with mass shootings, seems to have been more inspired by right-wing fascists than by radical Islam. Some of the attackers had a history of mental problems. But frightened citizens don't really care about the details. What they see is young Muslim men on the rampage, and authorities who seem helpless and incompetent. The French are demanding to know why two known terror risks were on the loose. Germans want to know why criminals and failed refugee claimants aren't being forcibly deported.
Their leaders have few answers for them. "We should learn to live with terrorism," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared after the Nice attack. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is doubling down on her "welcome culture" asylum policy. "For me it is clear: We will stick to our fundamental principles," she said last week.
Germans are not reassured. "Islamist terrorism has arrived in Germany," said Horst Seehofer, the governor of Bavaria. Bavaria, a conservative region in the south, has been hardest hit by the migrant wave. Its government wants immigration policy tightened. That will be difficult. Swamped by more than a million newcomers last year, German authorities are simply unable to do adequate background checks on everyone; 200,000 failed asylum seekers are sloshing around the country, and the barriers to forcible deportation are high.
France has similar problems. The police can't guard every church in the country. They can't track every suspicious-looking teenager, or lock them up in jail indefinitely simply because they might pose a national security threat. But moderate pragmatism isn't playing very well these days. "We are at war," declared former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to lock them up and deport every extremist immediately.
Only one thing is certain. The terrorist attacks won't stop. Jihadism is a movement that has metastasized around the world. Jihadis do not depend on Islamic State for support, and jihadism will probably survive after IS has been defeated and replaced by something else.
The problem of self-radicalizing young people who find self-actualization in destruction will be with us for many years to come. But whether moderate pragmatism will prevail is very much in doubt. An end to immigration, mass deportations, harsh restraints on civil liberties – all are possible. What happens in Europe could make Donald Trump seem like a nice guy.