After the killings: We the people of the capital of Europe

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
After the killings: We the people of the capital of Europe

We the people of the capital of Europe

I grew up in Old Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood now perceived across the world as a hotbed of terrorism. I live very close to Maalbeek metro station, where the bloodiest terrorist attack in Belgium’s history was perpetrated on March 22nd. Needless to say, I am deeply affected. There will be a before and an after March 22nd for the capital of the European Union just as there was a before and an after 9/11 for the whole world. The after is bound to be worse than the before in some respects and for some time. But it is up to us to make it better. How?


If we want to address the causes, not just deplore the effects, the priority is to understand. Among my fellow Brusselers, over 200.000 are of Moroccan origin. About 40.000 among them are men in the 20-40 age range, including the handful involved in the killings. A tiny minority, but enough to inflict lasting damage on all of us, not least the Muslim portion of the Brussels population. Why did they do it? In what sort of mental universe must they live in order for them to find it meaningful to kill themselves, in order to kill others they do not even know?  

Empathetic testimonies by people who knew some of the terrorists suggest the presence of three elements, with an intensity that varies significantly from one individual to another. They converted to a version of Islam that promises a life after death in which such acts will be rewarded rather than punished. The prospect of surviving as a loser, a coward or a traitor is sufficiently unattractive for them to seize the chance of dying a hero. And they strongly identify with a collective entity for the benefit of which they are willing to die and which is not, in their case - contrary to the original kamikaze - the national community in which they grew up.  

This diagnosis is oversimplified. But it should be accurate enough to give us some clues as to what is needed to get to the root of the problem, albeit in the long term, in a situation in which the standard response is particularly powerless: the dissuasive force of criminal penalties is pretty limited when criminals are eager to die.

Firstly, undermining the plausibility of a crazy view of life after death with murderous consequences is a daunting task in an era in which information and interpretation are no longer controlled by the mainstream local media, but increasingly provided to separate publics by segmented niches on the internet. In this context, schools remain the best bet, at least if they dare to talk respectfully about religion while teaching a critical attitude on all subjects. Not easy in a country in which religion is being taught at all levels of state schools, but separately to pupils from the various recognized religions by teachers appointed by their own faith community.

Secondly, those most vulnerable to the attraction of terrorism must be given the prospect of being more than just losers in the society in which they grew up. Not easy in a city in which success on the labour market is increasingly dependent on sufficient knowledge of French, Dutch and English, while the overwhelming majority of Brussels children, especially those of Moroccan origin, attend French-medium schools that leave them monolingual when they graduate.

Thirdly, those most vulnerable to the attraction of terrorism must be given a realistic possibility to feel that they belong fully to the community of all its residents. Not easy in a city in which 10% of the adult population knows neither of the city’s official languages, a city whose population consists of one third of (mostly European) foreigners, one third of Belgians of recent (mostly non-European) foreign origin and a shrinking third of French- or Dutch-speaking Belgo-Belges.

None of these strategies can be expected to produce immediate effects, and each faces in Brussels the specific difficulties I mentioned. For reasons that reach far beyond the breeding of terrorists, addressing these difficulties resolutely and intelligently would constitute an urgent start.

Life must go on

This was for the long term. What about the short term? Immediately after the IRA attack against the 1984 Conservative Party Conference, Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said "Life must go on." She later added "The fact that we are gathered here now - shocked, but composed and determined - is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail." She was right.

Hopefully, the Belgian authorities are slowly learning to adopt the same attitude. After the November 2015 Paris events, they shut down all schools in the Brussels Region (and only there) for two full days, thereby depriving Brussels children of one and a half million hours of schooling and making life very complicated for many parents. They shut down the Brussels metro entirely for five days. They prohibited all cultural events for an entire week. This time, fortunately, schools resumed immediately. Despite the metro itself being hit, part of the network was back in operation the following day, and cultural institutions were spared the big blow they suffered in November.

With the metro directly hit, it may be tempting to introduce burdensome security controls at every access to public transport. This would be a disaster. Sustainable life in our city, as in any other, requires a further expansion of efficient public transport. By creating long queues outside metro and train stations, one not only provides a wide choice of new targets for terrorist attacks. One also encourages the use of private cars and further expands the dangers cars create. The terrorist risk is only one among the many we run in our daily lives, the most spectacular one, perhaps, but by no means the greatest. To give an order of magnitude: even after March 22nd, if frequencies in the last ten years are used to guide estimates for the future, the probability that people will die in Belgium as a result of a terrorist attack remains 60 times smaller than the probability of being the victim of a homicide with a different motive, and 150 times smaller than the probability of dying as a result of a traffic accident. 

Has the conspicuous presence of soldiers and armoured vehicles in Brussels streets and squares over the last months done any good? This sort of protection makes sense when there are good reasons to suspect that there are specific targets, such as certain Embassies or a European Summit. But when the target is random, the most one achieves with a conspicuous military presence on 300 spots is a shift of the threat to the 10.000 equally crowded places unavoidably left unprotected. If the aim is not to excite the terrorists but to catch them, there is little to be said for this policy: you do not catch a wasp by installing a bazooka.

This does not mean that there is nothing to be done while waiting for the cause to vanish. Recent events have demonstrated that there is ample room for improving the collection, transmission and processing of information regarding suspected terrorists. We shall have to put up with increased surveillance of our wandering in public spaces, phone calls, e-mails, facebook posts, internet browsing, purchases and bank transfers. We shall need to create or recreate trust and collaboration between the local police and especially the local Muslim population, to enable more potentially relevant information to reach the security forces in time. And we shall need intelligence services well staffed with people not only fluent in Arabic but more able than others, because of their cultural background, to grasp what goes on in the heads of potential terrorists.

L’Union fait la force

The day after the killings, a country-wide Muslim organization called EmBeM (short for “Empowering Belgian Muslims”) published a message that ended as follows: “Only an inclusive society can fight terrorism efficiently and preventively. This inclusive society, which we all call for, must not remain wishful thinking. We can achieve it. We must achieve it. Today more than ever, let us recall the motto of our country: L’union fait la force.”

This is a creative interpretation of the motto adopted by Belgium when it became independent in 1830. “Unity makes strength” then expressed a concern about the tensions between Catholics and liberals, which needed to be overcome in order to secure the survival of the fledgling kingdom. In the course of the 20th century, however, the conflict between Flemings and Walloons gradually moved to the centre of Belgian politics, and is still there today — which is why most Belgians now believe that it is unity across the language divide that their national motto calls for.

In Brussels, however, the main divide is again religious. On the one hand, self-selection among Belgians who choose to live in Brussels and the increasingly cosmopolitan character of the city population have made the relationship between native French- and Dutch-speaking residents of Brussels less conflict-ridden than it has ever been since the end of the unchallenged dominance of French. On the other hand, the city has seen a fast growth of its Muslim minority, owing to the combined effect of immigration and comparatively high birth rates. Islam has now overtaken Catholicism as the city’s top religion in terms of regular practice.

EMBem’s appeal to L’Union fait la force in connection with the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims is therefore quite apt in the Brussels context. As explained above, bridging this divide is crucial in order to both address the roots of terrorism in the long term and fight terrorists in the short term. Schools, universities, associations, sports clubs, medical centres, employment offices, trade unions, political parties and public spaces all have a role to play in creating and recreating, again and again, a people of Brussels, a community of equals sharing a place and a destiny, and an inclusive urban community to which each resident, whether Muslim or not, belongs on an equal footing, respecting others and being respected by them.

There is, however, another interpretation of L’Union fait la force that is no less relevant in the present context. Was the bomb in the metro meant to explode at Schuman station, at the symbolic and functional centre of Brussels as the capital of the European Union, rather than at the next stop 400 meters away? Would the Brussels terrorists have bothered to attack their city had it just been a provincial town rather than the political capital of Europe it has gradually and unintentionally become? No one will ever know. What we do know is that this status makes our city not only the target of countless recriminations and insults, protests and demonstrations, but also, because of the symbol it represents and the permanent press attention it draws, a tempting target for terrorist attacks.

Whether or not the European Union was the reason why Brussels was hit, we badly need a strong European Union to reduce the chance that it happens again. It should by now be clear that the swift and efficient sharing of information across European borders — perhaps an expanded Europol with more powers and resources — is an essential and largely missing element of our protective shield. As in the euro crisis and the refugee crisis, the fact that the EU contributed to the problem does not prevent it from being central to the solution.

Ever since March 22nd, a motley assembly of Brusselers and visitors has kept gathering on the Place de la Bourse, recently freed of car traffic, in order to pay homage to the victims. Among the many banners and slogans, someone has positioned the flag of the European Union with the question “This is our dream?”. Perhaps a positive answer is to be found in the sentence many people wrote with chalk on the pavement and on the walls: L’Union fait la force.

By Philippe Van Parijs

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