The 14th of July is a happy event, in my book anyway. My grandfather was born on Bastille Day and used to invite neighbours for drinks at his house located in a tiny village in the north of France. We children loved that day of the year because we were allowed a stay up late, eat some ice-cream, dance at the firemen Bastille Day ball and watch fireworks. A very common and traditional way to spend French Independence Day for families.
This year was different. The day after Bastille Day, I woke up in my grandfather's house with a bitter taste in my mouth. The birds were singing and the sun was shining hot. I looked at my phone to check the time and saw a WhatsApp message from my South-African sister in law saying: "My thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been devastated by this truly horrible attack."
I could not believe it. It had happened again. Almost eight months to the day after the 13th November Paris attacks, 84 innocent civilians had been killed by a truck whilst they were strolling on the seashore in Nice, probably after having eaten an ice cream and watched the fireworks, just like we did.
I felt sad. I felt angry. But above all, I felt powerless. What made a 31 year-old father of three children to crush the lives of some random walkers peacefully spending the evening of their summer day off by the sea? How can we stop what seems to have become a trend (killing poor civilians when it is the least expected, in the name of religion)?
I am a lawyer by training and my first reaction was to look for blame. How could the police have let a 19-ton refrigerated truck on an avenue closed to cars and packed with tourists and vacationers? As it turns out, the truck driver said he was delivering ice cream. In any event, all the details I found could not appease my anguish. The point of terrorism is to take people by surprise.
All the terrorist attacks of this sort (9/11, Paris 13th of November attacks in a concert hall and this one) are, by definition, unprecedented. No matter how well the state tries to prevent future attacks based on previous ones, no matter how well you will be searched at airports or before entering a stadium, if terrorists want to scare you off, they will find new innovative ways for doing so.
But we can find equally innovative ways to deter and redirect people who would commit terrorist acts. One of them is called non-complementary behaviour.
To stop these questions going round in my head, I decided to do one of my favourite cures against anxiety: gardening whist listening to a podcast.
That podcast miraculously happened to be very à propos and described how, in a small Scandinavian community, a handful of Danish policemen had managed to successfully reduce radicalisation and almost eradicate the trend of young adults enrolling for the Jihad in Syria. The recipe is simple and counter-intuitive.
After having tried to crack down on terrorism, to label and to imprison youngsters suspected of having been radicalized, they decided to invite them over to the police station for coffee and asked what they could do to help them. They would sort out apartments and help them to find jobs. They even started a mentorship program, pairing these young Muslims with established Danish citizens to increase a sense of belonging. Now, let's pause for a minute. It was an extremely brave step to take for this group of Danish policemen when most of their fellow citizens were asking for punishment and protection.
What these policemen did has a scientific name, I later found out in that program. In psychology, it is called non-complementary behaviour. Simply put, it means doing the unexpected and "changing the script" by avoiding to mirror the other person's behaviour, a pattern most of us will intuitively resort to. As naïve and simple as it may seem, reaching out and offering to help the person aggressing you may well stop the escalation of violence.
"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that." T
hese beautiful lines of verse by Martin Luther King which, over the years, have almost become cliché, may not only be true but also backed up by science. I do not know if what these policemen did in their small community is replicable on a bigger scale in France.
I am by no means suggesting we should give up the arsenal of safety measures currently put in place by the French state to combat terrorism. All I know is that I would feel less helpless if I knew that a tiny proportion of my tax money was used to test, at least in one or two pilot communities, the methods used by these Danish policemen which have proven to successfully curb the radicalization trend of young adults in their Scandinavian locality.
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