I awoke this morning to a text message: “God bless Belgium.” It didn’t say more. It didn’t need to. Everyone nowadays knows what a message like that means.
It means the everyday — the visiting of death on an otherwise peaceful place by a group of terrorists — has happened in a place that isn’t just another name on the news ticker at the bottom of your TV screen. Tel Aviv, Diyala, Kabul, Mogadishu, Valence on Jan. 1 alone, and others pretty much every other day of this year: These places are the rule in our world today, violence to which we are appallingly indifferent. A Paris is the exception, violence in a place to which we have some connection and which provokes in us a feeling of personal sadness and even anger.
A Brussels, that is, violence in a place you once called home for four and a half years, is something beyond that.
Every bombing of an airport or subway station ought to provoke the same outrage in us that we feel when it’s an airport through which we’ve flown dozens of times (one where people I actually know landed, safely, this morning shortly after the bombings). Or when it’s a subway station whose name we’ve heard the train announcer’s voice say so many times we can mimic it: “Mael-beek.” It just doesn’t.
Every city so attacked is the home to someone’s former neighbors, colleagues, friends, pastors — and someone’s current ones. We only feel it acutely when we know enough of them for Facebook to start sending us notifications that people we know have been able to mark themselves “safe” in a “Facebook Safety Check.” What does it say about our world that a social-media giant must keep at the ready such an alert system? It says this happens in a deeply personal way to too many people, far more often than we are prepared to recognize. It also says that, if it hasn’t yet happened in a place that’s dear to you, well …
Brussels was no accidental target. It’s not one of those European cities that readily comes to mind for many Americans, but as the capital of both the European Union and NATO it most certainly ranks as a top-tier city internationally. (So powerful are the EU’s regulators that, when I lived there from 2004 to 2009, Brussels supposedly had more lobbyists than Washington, D.C.)
Nor is it an accident that Brussels was attractive as a home base to the plotters of these terrible acts. While French law makes the more controversial aspects of the Patriot Act look downright libertarian, Belgian law notoriously hampers police investigations — when, that is, the police can be bothered to investigate; tales of officers refusing to enforce the law in a neighboring communes (municipalities the size of many neighborhoods in the city of Atlanta) and the like are rampant, if not always verified, in the city. The investigators are, by reputation, more Clouseau than Poirot.
What’s more, the country’s attempts at multiculturalism have yielded a society more fractured and segregated than most anything you will find in America today. This has led to resentment among the nation’s immigrants, who typically hail from North Africa and Turkey and have largely failed or declined to assimilate, as well as among the Belgians themselves. Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, has for years struggled with separatist political parties that have welcomed voters who are either xenophobic or simply tired of being told their complaints about immigrants are impolitic. (Sound familiar?) The splits among not only ethnic lines but, among the Belgians, linguistic lines (Dutch speakers vs. francophones) have at times made the country ungovernable. Between 2007 and 2011, the political parties in the country’s parliamentary system went a total of about two years, including 20 consecutive months, without being able to form a government.
It is within these conditions that Islamist terror cells apparently have been able not only to exist but to flourish. Last November’s attacks in Paris were coordinated from Belgium, and only last Friday was one of the Paris terrorists captured in Brussels. We will have to wait and see if those who carried out today’s attacks in Brussels were specifically connected with the killers of Paris.
The more familiar the place and people, the more personal the tragedy. I am thankful that, as far as I can tell, everyone I know in Brussels is safe. But we cannot all wait for tragedy to hit us personally before we recognize the determined evil in our midst. The long war between the West and Islamist terrorists carries on. They know that fully. Do we?
(MyAJC’s full coverage of the attacks is available here.)