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Nice: Entering the Gray Zone

“I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one”

— John Lennon, “Imagine”

So close to home, one of our own, Nicolas Leslie, a UC Berkeley student abroad in France, after being missing for four days, was confirmed dead, one of the 84 victims of the terrorist attack in Nice. Three other Berkeley students were seriously wounded. Grieving and anxious family, friends and administrators are weeping and at a loss for what to say, how to respond to a world turned upside down. This tragic death followed the death two weeks ago of another Berkeley student, nineteen-year-old Tarishi Jain, who was killed in another terrorist attack on a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Nice has moved the world one step closer to self-destruction and redefined “us” and “them”.  Nice starkly reveals how totally vulnerable we all are and how deficient are our national and international security systems. We are still being asked to take off our Birkenstock shoes at airport security check points because a disturbed young man named Richard Reid tried to set fire to some kind of explosives tucked into his shoes during a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. As South African police captain, Louis Helberg, reminded me during our collaborations on human trafficking in Durban: “Remember, the criminals are always smarter than we are.”

Not shoes after all, but the universal icon of modern consumer desire has made its debut as a new weapon of terrorist destruction: the car, better yet the truck. There are more than six hundred million cars, vans, and trucks in the world – they are everywhere in our lives, long ago they displaced sidewalks in the suburbs and made crossing the street a death trap in downtown Manila, Florence, Istanbul, and Cairo. I once hired a taxi just to get safely across Tahir Square (now also referred to as “Martyr’s Square”). Horror films of cars gone berserk and terrorizing towns and cities have long been a Hollywood genre beginning with the 1977 film Car.

The targets of terrorism have changed. Following the Bataclan massacre in Paris ISIS claimed responsibility by announcing that it had moved its frontline action beyond executions of Islamic apostates and infidels toward ordinary secularists who think they can carry on a normal life living in a bubble, isolated from the suffering of the Muslim world, and wrapped inside a cloud of unknowing.  ISIS defined its new soft target as the indeterminate “gray zone.” But it was not what Primo Levi had in mind.  The gray zone encompasses all those who think they are free to live as they wish and even to enjoy life in the sun and the beach, those who wear bathing suits, drink wine, and eat pork belly tacos.

Exterminating the Gray Zone

Following the Paris Bataclan massacres, the ISIS English-language magazine Debiq (Dabiq V11) featured a story declaring its intention to eradicate and exterminate the indeterminate  “gray zone”.   ISIS militants recognize only two possibilities: with or against: “The gray zone is critically endangered, rather on the brink of extinction. Its endangerment began with the blessed operations of September 11th, as these operations manifested two camps before the world for mankind to choose between, a camp of Islam… and a camp of kufr [unbelief], the crusader coalition.”

The ISIS attack on the “gray zone” is reminiscent of the atrocious turn taken by the Argentine generals during the Dirty War. In May 1977, General Iberico Saint Jean, governor of Buenos Aires, famously declared: “First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators… then their sympathizers, then those who remain indifferent and, finally, we will kill the timid.’’

Similarly, Nelson Mandela responded to a massacre of white and coloured students in a tavern by angry radical youth in Cape Town in 1993, warning that more was to come. A political revolution lacking an economic revolution would leave the “angry young lions” in the townships in the dust.  Their new enemy, Mandela said, would be anyone who “ owns a home and has a car.” And he was right: a stoning of white cars from township highway overpasses became a tactic of resistance and defiance.   (Scheper-Hughes 1994, “The Last White Christmas: The Heidelberg Pub Massacre, American Anthropology.”)

Now a berserk terrorist rented a truck to plow into a crowd of vacationers on Bastille Day, honoring the storming of a prison that inaugurated the French Revolution.

Today we are all potential targets of ISIS.

Nice has also assured that there will be new targets of our dangerous and hysterical fears, not only the brown man with a beard sitting next to us on a plane, but the Tunisian taxi cab driver, the Lebanese man driving a Fed Ex delivery truck, and the Syrian waiter serving us a falafel in a corner café.

Imagine this. We are now all living in a world “as one,” although it is not one of our choosing.

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Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology, University of California Berkeley. Scheper-Hughes participated in a Vatican plenary on Human Trafficking in April 2015. She has published a series of articles on the “conversion” of Pope Francis, including, “Can God Forgive Jorge Bergoglio?” (2013, CounterPunch,;  “The Final Conversion of Pope Francis” (with Jennifer S. Hughes),  and “Face to Face with Pope Francis”  (2015), Huffington Post.  

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