Brussels aftermath: Candlelight marches and illuminated monuments reinforce arrogance

We are ashamed of being scared That is the toll terrorism has taken
Voices Opinion Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 13:46

She was on a flight to Paris. The gentleman next to her was friendly. After the plane took off, he pulled out a beautifully bound Quran from his hand luggage and started reading. She pretended she was not looking at the book, then at him and back at the book. When he went to the toilet, she thought he was gone for too long.  She was ashamed of herself – the T word had crossed her mind many times in the interlude.

Geneva was on high alert. Two terrorists from nearby France had escaped to the city and disappeared into the countryside. The first reaction of a couple living in a village near Geneva was to shut all the doors, check the windows and wait for the terrorist to knock. Stupid – really?

This could happen to you and this is the damage terrorists have heaped on the world – fear and shame, fear and anger, fear and helplessness. As at least 33 people lay dead after yet another attack in Brussels on Tuesday, there is little solace for us in India to say the West has lost the battle against terror. That is reinforcing the West’s view that they are the heart and soul of all things democratic, human rights and individual freedoms. It is more accurate to say, the world that calls itself democratic has lost the battle, collectively. World leaders have expressed solidarity with the Belgians. What solidarity – sell arms from one hand and wave the peace flag with the other? A hospital was bombed not too long ago.

When a feared or hated word enters a language, it creates a battlefield no bombs can destroy. It also creates a determination no enemy can fathom, much less deter. The lights on the Eiffel Tower in Paris with Belgian colours will mean little to people whose lights have been switched out by bombs and cannons for generations – people who had nothing to do with anything. Just like those who died in Brussels on Tuesday, normal people, common people and people of faith, not necessarily religious.

The device that detonated at the Brussels airport was placed between the American Airlines and Brussels Airlines counter. The other went off at the Molenbeek metro station, close to the offices of the European Union (EU). It was Tuesday. Connect the dots. The planters of bombs are thinking people, they pick their days and their attacks are precise. The sinister reference to the film “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” cannot be missed. In addition to the EU, Brussels is home to the World Customs Organisation, the European Economic Area, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), some 2,500 international agencies, 2, 000 international companies and 150 international law firms. The headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is also in Brussels. For people fleeing war zones in Syria and beyond, NATO is a bombing machine.

Europeans live in fear. Terrorism is discussed in homes across the continent and the divide is quasi complete. For some, it is the Muslims, while others say what did you expect when you bombed the daylights out of people’s lives? Europe’s flirtation with the laity over the past decade has resulted in a continent dividing itself between the faithless and the faithful. It was not meant to be that way. Europe is Christian, its institutions are Christian and its holidays are Christian. On paper, it is laic (separation of the church and the state broadly), but somewhere the absence of a religious stamp on democracy has resulted in the disappearance of faith. Religion and faith are different things. Europe is grappling faithfully against religious fanatics. The battle is wrongly framed.

Belgium has a special place in this world where there is an absence of a firm narrative and the presence of growing radicalisation. Situated at the heart of Europe, early signs that something was amiss surfaced almost two decades ago when a house search by Belgian police retrieved an Algerian document. It was alleged that this was the first jihad manual ever found in Europe. Two days before the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2011, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the last man battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, was killed by terrorists who had entered Afghanistan with Belgian passports.

Belgium is also strategically located between Europe’s heavy hitters Germany, France and the United Kingdom (UK). A Schengen visa ensures easy travel and quick passage for cars driving in a part of Europe where ghettos (euphemistically called communities) burgeon. A fourth of the 100,000 residents of Molenbeek are unemployed young Muslims who do not get the same opportunities in the labour market as others in Europe. Some 40% of this population has foreign origins.

It is feared that the bombs were a riposte for the proposed extradition of Salah Abdul Salam, prime suspect in the Paris bombings, from Belgium to France. How does it matter? In fact, what does it matter when the best of security and the fastest of technology fail against determination to die at all costs and wreak maximum havoc with available people and means?

In contrast, the United States (US) has spent almost as much as India’s annual GDP ($1.8 trillion) fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without winning either. The country’s homeland security spends $6.75 million per hour to keep America safe internally.  Between the trillions and sophisticated war machines, comes a bomb that shuts down a city.

More than 250 Belgians have left the country to fight alongside the jihadis in Syria and Iraq and 75 have died. A European study says Belgium has the highest rate of foreign fighters per capita in Europe. The situation in Europe is nowhere near the Lebanon of the 1980s or the Syria and Turkey of today.  Then, as long as it was happening on television screens, visible aid and invisible arms deals kept people happy and voting for status quo in Europe and in America, the latter separated by the Atlantic. Now, the bombs have come home to Europe.

Terrorism is not a choice for most people. Neither is a permanent refugee status, a career option. In addition to reinforcing their own security, the world’s leaders could start asking themselves why people are fleeing their homes and hearth. 

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