Brussels: Reaching Beyond

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The Belgian Flag. Originally taken by fdecomite (used under a Creative Commons licence)
Summary: Far from having all the answers, we need a nuanced approach to end the wave of terrorist attacks which have engufled Europe. Our response cannot be guided by fear, but must be based on reacting in an intelligent, nuanced and assertive manner towards those who would do us harm. Above all, we cannot permit ourselves to get used to this, but be outraged every time terrorists violate our freedoms. It’s time to reclaim our public spaces, and our leaders need to help us do just that. 

What do you say on a day like this? I have a lot on my mind tonight, so apologies for the stream-of-consciousness way I’ve written this. I’m becoming quite aware of my inclination to comment on such events with such thoughts of my own, frequently on Facebook – and I also hesitate for a variety of reasons.

First, Facebook isn’t for politics. Anyone who knows me knows full well that I’m passionate about my opinions and am actively engaged with international relations. But I also understand that it’s not for everyone and that many people use Facebook to go on a virtual escape for everyday worries. We all have at some point.

Second, I’m not an expert at easily digestible 30-second soundbites, because I believe that political issues are much more complex than a 140-character tweet or a meme. It’s a weakness in this social media world, but it’s something I have gotten used to. That said, I won’t blame you if you feel unable to sit through this collection of thoughts.

Third, there comes a point when it starts feeling ritualistic. How often can one possibly offer one’s “thoughts and prayers” or express some sort of vague solidarity with a country and its citizens before it sounds too much like “been there, done that”? I don’t mean to belittle the kind and compassionate sentiment behind such wishes – in fact, I offered them today. Nonetheless, I realize that expressions of compassion can only be part of the answer. And that’s putting it diplomatically.

Yet, here I am, none the wiser, writing a post on this website – despite not being a political leader, humanitarian, statesman, business magnate or philosopher being able to offer particularly consequential insight. I sure as heck am not able to offer more than my opinion on something that happened today. So, for those looking for a witty comment, the same platitudes etc, please switch the channel (in this case: timeline) now. This will be a long one.

Before I get into the central thrust of my thoughts, yes, I do offer my deepest sympathies to the people of Brussels and Belgium. I have travelled to your country many times, I’ve come to love the old ancient buildings of Leuven, the utterly beautiful railway station in Antwerp, the pristinely stunning old town in Bruges and the history of Brussels. I adore your utterly amazing, delicious food (whether its finest exquisite chocolates, waffles, some of the best beer ever (and I say this being a German!) and Belgian fries). So far, I have not had the pleasure of going to Wallonia – but hey, there’s something for my to-do list. The Belgians I have met througout my life have been kind, generous and curious about the world. In short, I feel for you. Understandably, many of you will be anxious, fearful and terrified. This is normal, and we need to permit ourself a brief moment of helplessness, of sadness, of mourning. We also need to have faith: Faith that our elected leaders will take the immediate measures to capture, prosecute and bring to justice the terrorists who committed this act – and their sympathizers, as well as anyone who provided them shelter, aid and comfort of any kind. Make no mistake about it: This is not the time for leniency, but ruthless use of all the instruments of the rule of law against the people who want to kill us. It’s also the time to prove that liberal democracies are way more resilient than violent extremists typically give us credit for.

The terrorists who did this, who slaughtered dozens of people in the departures hall of a well-frequented international airport and a metro station near the European Commission, have no understanding of or respect for the value of human life. Theirs is a nihilistic ideology in which anything goes. Including mass murder on a Tuesday morning. There is no negotiation, no compromise with this type of radical ideology. These terrorist organizations need to be structurally eliminated and their members incapacitated.

The terrorists fear nothing more than our way of life
Note that they attacked places which help humans move around in various ways. The subway leads right through the European Quarter. The airport is arguably the most international place in any city in the world, no matter the city’s demographics. Then, there was a threat against one of Brussels’ universities: a place of learning.The choice of targets tells you why the terrorists did this. Not only because of the prospective mass casualities, but also to tell us what they are about. They despise our willingness to explore the world, to meet people from other cultures & work with them – and to educate ourselves about the rest of the world, to broaden our horizons and learn more than we have known. They hate our freedom to worship (or not worship), to marry who we love (or not marry at all), to travel anywhere we want, to do as we please, to wear what we want, to hold our governments to account, to pick our jobs, to vote (or not vote at all). They despise who we are for they have nothing to offer. They deserve nothing less than our full-scale revulsion, contempt and utter condemnation. They may think they are doing the work of a higher power, but instead they are serving their own most craven and selfish instincts. They are despicable and it’s time to quite simply take the fight to them.

Predictable Reactions: They no longer cut it
That said, it’s all become too ritualistic. We offer thoughts and prayers to our neighbours when these atrocities happen – and after an appropriate period of mourning, we resume life as normal, as if nothing happened. We saw this after the events of New York City & Washington, D.C., London, Paris (twice) and Madrid – let alone Mumbai, Istanbul, Ankara, Bamako and all too many in between. There have been some passionate discussions about whether one could overlay one’s Facebook profile picture with the flag of the country that was targeted. But I am yet to see a discussion amongst the members our generation (and beyond) about the best way to fight back against the terrorists. Why am I raising this now?

Because I’m tired: Day in, day out – ever since September 11, we have borne witness to an ever-steeper decline in the public discussion of terrorism. I want to feel that our political leaders are taking the threat seriously – and not just when some right-wing xenophobe decides to rear his/her head (yes, Messrs Farage, Wilders and Madame Le Pen, I’m looking straight at you), but as a matter of national concern. Let’s be honest: We ARE the envy of the world – one only needs to look at the number of people coming to our shores to start a better life to be convinced of that.Our sheer existence, success and prosperity constitute an elementary threat to the likes of ISIS. That’s why they feel it’s worth attacking us.

Yet, I can see what will happen: In the midst of mourning, minorities will be attacked, singled out for vitriol, with children being taunted in schools (as has already happened in the States) and adults being attacked for their faith & the colour of their skin. Xenophobes will make hay and instrumentalize the situation – but equally, there’ll be reflexive responses of “our freedoms will emerge stronger than ever”. Will they?

Time to Fight Back – Hard
They won’t unless we’re willing to put a few things on the line and invest in our security, in a smart use of technology & miltary capacities and finally formulate a vigorous, unapologetic defence of our liberal, cosmopolitan and democratic way of life. The terrorists hate us for it. We shouldn’t be afraid of their hatred, we should pick it up as a badge of honour. We should relentlessly mock them for the pathetic outcasts that they are. We need to celebrate our freedoms and do what we feel is right.

As far as ISIS is concerned, it’s time to take the war to them – not wait like sitting ducks until Berlin is next, or Amsterdam, or Rome, or Lisbon or another major capital city. That may very well mean going into Syria and taking them out, one-by-one. If that means that we have to commit a massive military force to eliminate ISIS terrorists, then so be it. If that means investing in more human intelligence on the ground to detect threats before they gather, then so be it. At home, their sympathizers can no longer be ignored. ISIS sympathies must be treated as what they are: a rhetorical fifth column in favour of fanaticism and murder across the world. They need to be prosecuted, and the media coverage of ISIS statements must be severely restricted. At the very least, we need an international, legally binding agreement against the use of the internet for terrorist propaganda. The internet is the lifeline of terrorists like ISIS/Daesh. Time to cut it off.

Equally, though, we must stand up against bigotry, racism and xenophobia whereever it is seen, including and especially at our very own shores. We can be concerned and even terrified of what happened in Brussels today, and Paris in November. But we must never be guided by that fear. Fear is a terrible guide, and history is littered with examples of fear leading entire countries down a path of disaster.

Fear led to Japanese internment,
fear led to Guantanamo Bay,
fear led to the Nazis taking power,
fear led to the Iraq War,
fear led to the Rwandan Genocide…

Fear of the other, fear of what could happen next. It’s a terrible guide to our actions. I want us to fashion a long-term, intelligent response to these terrorist outrages: one that isn’t afraid of using military power, including ground forces – but also doesn’t glorify it as the cure-all for this complex problem. A response that considers the importance of bringing people together, and going after extremists (foreign and domestic) who are unwilling to accept that times have changed, and that we must change with them. A response that decisively goes after terrorist sympathizers, but provides opportunities for all citizens – without being discriminated, suspected or marginalized. A response that does not apologize for our liberal way of life, but also aggressively defends it in our foreign policy by not dealing with those countries who oppress their citizens. A response that takes the concerns of wider electorates about issues of national identity and immigration seriously, but quite simply refuses the simplistic answers that come with extreme views.

We can win – Together
We, as citizens, cannot allow ourselves to get used to terrorism, anywhere across the world. The day we do, we will have sacrificed what makes us all, well, truly human: the ability to empathize, love and, on days like this, suffer with our fellow man and fellow woman. In the next few days, there will be much shouting and soul-searching. But let us remember, for all the noise and fury, to reach out and to reach beyond what comes easily. Let’s do what seems hard: Let’s stand together, united, indivisble – regardless of political ideology, faith, education or cultural background. Let’s do what is right. Let’s never allow hatred, fear, deception and resentment to divide us. Let’s not allow the far right to claim our national flags for their hatred of minorities, but fight back. Those flags don’t belong to them, they belong to all of us.

Let’s reclaim our public spaces. Let’s fight the terrorists by being aware of their intent, but not being driven by their actions. I will board my upcoming flights, I will get on the metro, I will take the train and I will travel to Brussels, Paris, London and beyond. I will not let a bunch of hardened, fanatic criminals tell me what I’m supposed to do. If something happens, we will cross that Rubicon when we get there. As one people, as humans – united, indivisible, and with common resolve. It’s time to make us whole again.

In short, we will not allow the terrorists to win. It’s not us who will surrender, it’s them.

May the Belgian people and everyone in Brussels have the strength and resilience to weather the aftermath of today’s tragic events, and may they get through it in the best possible way.
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