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Well, I had an interesting journey to work yesterday. Normally I take public transport, but once or twice a month I drive in; and as usual there was a fairly major tailback of traffic at the tunnel that takes you from the motorway to Avenue de Cortenbergh when I hit it at about 0850. But it became clear by the time I reached Rond Point Schuman that this was no ordinary traffic jam; the Rue de la Loi, along which I would normally coast before taking a left turn down Rue de la Science for my office (the green line on my map), was being closed off by serious-looking police, and I ended up taking a very serpentine route indeed, not helped by thinking at one point that it might be smart to double back and then changing my mind. My phone is broken, so I had no idea what was going on, but it was obviously something very serious. (I suppose I could have checked the radio, but I was listening to an audio play, and valued the distraction.)

I finally made it to the office at 1022, those last two kilometres having taken me 90 minutes to drive, to find most of my colleagues gathered ashen-faced in the lobby, greeting me tearfully – I was the only person who was unaccounted for, due to my phone being out of order – and giving me the headlines of what had happened. It’s nice to feel appreciated, still more so when I logged on and saw many concerned messages from friends and family, and even more so when people responded to my posts confirming that I was safe. One of the great things about the interconnectedness of today’s world is that we can often catch up with our friends quickly – Facebook’s check-in system in particular is a source of reassurance.

The horror has hit very close to home. I have flown out of Brussels airport in the morning five times this year, and was originally due to do so again on Friday to go to Eastercon in Manchester (in fact my plans have changed and I’ll take the Eurostar to London for work tomorrow and travel on up by train). My wife was flew out on Monday for a funeral in England and was due to fly back last night; her flight was cancelled and she will now return by Eurostar this evening. Maelbeek metro station (the four-pointed star on my map) is in the heart of the EU quarter, and I go past it almost every day and through it several times a month; a former colleague was actually on the train that was bombed, but fortunately escaped without injury; another former staffer (from before my time) was in the departure hall of the airport, and is recovering well from minor injuries.

As with any awful event, there’s a temptation to grasp for easy explanations. I will give in to that temptation. It seems to my jaundiced eye that, dreadful as they were, yesterday’s attacks were botched. Maelbeek is actually the wrong metro station to attack – both Schuman, the stop before, and Arts-Loi, the stop after, would surely be much more attractive targets, being much busier intersections on the network (and also both recently renovated as prestige architectural projects). Only two of three planned explosions in the airport happened, the third attacker apparently losing his nerve and running away. To adopt a Trump-ism, these guys were losers.

This happened because they are losing. Less than a week ago, a major figure in the terror movement was arrested in Brussels; perhaps yesterday was revenge for his arrest, perhaps it was rushed into because they were afraid he would start talking (or knew that he already had). On the ground, their allies and sponsors are losing territory and resources in Syria and Iraq. I wrote a week ago about violence as story-telling, in the Irish context. This is an attempt to write a story about the weakness of our interconnected world, attacking places where people travel and meet, where many nationalities and cultures join together and build together.

It is a narrative that must not and will not win. I am not interested in hearing that this is all because of migration. I am a migrant myself; so are my brother and my sister and my wife. I bet we will find that the perpetrators of yesterday’s attacks were all EU citizens, maybe even all Belgian citizens; their victims will have been from a much broader variety of backgrounds (the first formally identified victim was a Peruvian, resident in Belgium for many years, who was checking their flight in the departure hall at Zaventem while her Belgian husband kept an eye on their little twin girls playing in the corridor; a British man who was probably on the Metro has not been heard from). Travel broadens the mind; clamping down on migration now, when it’s clear that the culprits are already here, is a surrender to violence.

Likewise I am not interested in hearing that this is a fundamental problem with a particular ethnic, religious or cultural group. I admit that I’m personally sensitive about this, having grown up as a Catholic in Belfast during the bad old days, when it was not always easy to be myself in England. I think also of my numerous Muslim relatives and friends, many of whom are deeply politically engaged and who have themselves fought against fundamentalist extremism in their own communities. (You never hear about that, by the way, because it doesn’t suit the media narrative to report on it.) Targeting an entire community in retaliation for the actions of a few is also a surrender to violence.

The solution is both stick and carrot – to increase the penetration of these groups by our own intelligence services (and I know that the Belgian VSSE is increasing its capacity, though clearly they are not where they should be) and to shift the political calculus on the streets, so that supporting the state becomes a more attractive option than helping out your own community’s hotheads (and in fact we are most of the way there already). For the rest of us not involved with security or community development policy-making, we must continue to show solidarity with the victims and with each other.

I changed my Facebook icon to overlay it with the Belgian flag yesterday; I am proud of this country, which I now call my own, which finds its way to solutions through peculiar paths, and sometimes combines superficial surliness with a silent determination to just get on with things. I’m also proud of the European project, which is about building and sustaining a vision based on transcending past conflict. I am not interested in hearing the views of those who want to open new conflicts. They are losing. We must win.

And now I shall go and see if I can get a temporary solution for my phone situation, and tidy the house up before my better half’s belated arrival this evening. If you have someone to hug, hug them, and tell them (if you like) that I said so.

(A final word to my ambasssador friend who admits that he was in Washington on 9/11 and in London on 7/7 - please let us know where your next posting is, so that we can avoid it!)


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 23rd, 2016 08:46 am (UTC)

So glad you and yours are safe.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 08:52 am (UTC)
The FB check-in system took me by surprise yesterday (in a good way). I left for work having seen that you had just posted and knowing that Stephanie, my other friend in Belgium, is in fact in the USA at the moment. (That led to my having to field a couple of messages from people who weren't sure if I was cat-sitting for her this time too - no, that visit's planned for May and we're definitely still going.)

And then, over the morning, my phone buzzed a couple of times with FB messages from the check-in system - the first person to use it was you, which was not really a surprise. Then Amel, my French Muslim friend who was living in Algiers last I heard - moved back to Belgium last week, apparently. Then G, whose spring holiday to France was taking her home via Brussels (she was en route to the airport and turned back; she's investigating flights out of Paris now). Two friends on a business trip who had come through Maelbeek 20 minutes earlier and were just going into their meeting when the news came through. (QOTD: "We considered cancelling the meeting. But then all the paperwork would have had to be reprinted with new dates for the signatures to be legally binding. In four languages. Just before Easter. With the EU's stroppiest admin assistant in charge of it all. We finished the meeting and at lunch she brought us beer.")
Mar. 23rd, 2016 09:32 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting this.

It will be good to see you in Manchester. Travel safely.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 10:40 am (UTC)
Thanks for this! I'm sharing this on Twitter because of the personal stories, the clear analysis and advice on how to proceed. I want to share the voices of level-headed people pointing the way, away from mass hysteria.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 11:51 am (UTC)
Thx for writing this Nicholas. And I love the image your red route portrays, kind of like a thinking man taking a giant step....
(no subject) - gummitch - Mar. 23rd, 2016 11:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 23rd, 2016 12:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting these wise words.

Last night on the Daily Show, Our Taavi, asked about the Brussels Events, said 1st, unequivocally, that 'The people fleeing from war and conflict, ARE NOT THE TERRORISTS; and that if we as Europeans give in to building walls, they will have won.'
Mar. 23rd, 2016 02:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks for checking in and posting about this and being a rational person.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 02:54 pm (UTC)
This the most well written response I've seen, brilliant. I'm glad you and your family are safe.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 04:30 pm (UTC)
I am so glad you and yours are okay.

I agree that these attacks are an attempt to drive us apart and the response the attackers will hate most is for us to refuse to be driven. Thank you for saying so so clearly.

I don't like facebook much (can't handle the firehose-of-trivia aspect) but I was very glad when one of the Filers posted that you had checked in and were okay.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 07:34 pm (UTC)
Really glad you're okay.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 09:46 pm (UTC)
Good post... Time we caught up again.

You may like this: https://theconversation.com/lessons-from-a-would-be-suicide-bomber-on-how-to-defeat-terrorism-52540
Mar. 23rd, 2016 10:04 pm (UTC)
I only know you from File 770 and the like - still glad to see you're safe, and pleased to read such a clear and level-headed response.
Mar. 23rd, 2016 11:37 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you're okay, and I really admire this post.
Mar. 24th, 2016 12:33 am (UTC)
Glad to hear you and yours are alright.
Mar. 24th, 2016 02:25 am (UTC)
May I link on facebook, please?
Mar. 24th, 2016 02:32 am (UTC)
Go ahead - it's a free internet!
Mar. 24th, 2016 02:35 am (UTC)
Glad you're o.k.
Mar. 24th, 2016 02:56 pm (UTC)
Just repeating what others have already said - I'm glad to hear you are all right, & that you've got such a clear understanding of how we should proceed.

Between your work in the sci-fi community & the kind of thinking this post reveals, you seem highly invested in promoting the positive & creative forces of imagination. Thank you.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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