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!)