Two weeks ago we had the horrific attacks in Paris, with 130 innocent people killed. Senseless violence, breeding a senseless response. It is hard to fathom why an attack in France, committed by French nationals, had to result in bombing in Syria, anti-refugee sentiment directed at those fleeing similar terrorism, and the lock-down of Brussels. The lock-down of Brussels was the least of all these events, but it is the one I lived through.
Armoured personnel carrier on the streets of Brussels. And a waffle wagon - it is still Belgium afterall
A week after the Paris attacks, the international media was slamming Belgium to an absurd degree. The US media called Belgium a "failed state", something so patently absurd for the 14th safest country in the world that the ex-US ambassador called them out on it. And as for the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, well, in the words of the Australian media:
Molenbeek is a bleak hellhole that is exporting bigotry and hatred beyond Belgium’s borders. The area has become notorious as a breeding ground for jihadis and was home to several of the terrorists responsible for the latest attacks on Paris
Patently absurd. Yes, Molenbeek is one of the poorer and rougher neighbourhoods of Brussels, which would make it... safer than the safest part of New York? Our babysitter lives there, and our son sometimes goes over her house to play with her rabbit. Think we would allow that if Molenbeek was a bleak hellhole?
There are problems in Belgium. As in the rest of the world, Belgian immigrants are shut out of the economy in hundreds of subtle (and some not so subtle) ways, leading to poverty. In Belgium, for historical reasons most of our immigrants are Muslim, and most live in the poorest neighbourhoods of Brussels, so these economic problems are concentrated in places like Molenbeek. Show me any neighbourhood in the world with a young population and high youth unemployment and I'll show you young men getting into trouble. Belgian Muslims are generally less religious than Belgian Catholics, but out of a lot of angry young men with no jobs and little prospect, yeah, you'll get some radicalisation.
Want to hear my one-step solution to Molenbeek? Jobs. Make jobs for all the youths. Young men with too much time and nothing to do? Give them jobs. Young men start spending all day at work and all night spending the money. Trash-talk on the streets is much less fun then drinking or taking your girlfriend out for dinner. Young women with jobs are now financially independent and harder to impress. The actual jobs don't matter, but why not have them improving the place? People are much less likely to destroy things they built. Or employ them to give Arabic lessons to public servants such as police? So many advantages - upskilling employees, building relationships, just conversations leading to people recognising each other as people. Sure, it would be expensive, but cheaper than what we actually did, and more effective.
Which brings me to the government's response to the Paris attacks. The Belgian government is currently led by the anti-immigrant xenophobic side of politics, and don't miss many chances to slam immigrants. I mean, seriously, we had to pass regressive new legislation to make sure an estimated five Belgian women don't wear face-coverings. These are people who shut down a Syrian refugee camp calling it "almost a music festival". So rather than try to inject some sensible calmness into the conversation after Paris, we had the Belgian PM say "Now we’ll have to get repressive". There were serious proposals to shut down mosques and put electronic tags on young Muslim men. A week later, Brussels went into lock-down.
Repression. Let's talk about that word for a minute. Repression means that what is going to come next is going to be excessively harsh, because part of the point is to inflict pain on you, to crush you, to beat you down. Repression is invariably the response of tyrants to any dissent, and in turn repression acts as the pressure cooker that extremism is forged in. I challenge anyone to give me an example, one single example, where repression has solved extremism. Why not ask Assad how repression has worked for him? He certainly inflicted a degree of repression on Syria that would be unthinkable in Belgium, and it just bred ISIS. Gaddafi? The Saudis? You don't think all of them tried brutal repression to stamp out Islamism? Each generation they stamped out just bred bigger resentments and more radical extremism. Repression is not only immoral, it is stupid.
After annoucing the government was trying for repression, Brussels was put into lock-down. Military flooded the streets, the metro and schools were shut-down, tanks were driven into the city. Completely unprecedented. Why did this happen? The stated reason was that one of the French attackers, Salah Abdeslam, was thought to be in the city. Certainly there was a security situation, but we would be naive to assume that the international media frenzy and the domestic agenda weren't also at play. Governments love to look "strong" after a terrorist attack (think: George W. Bush getting 90% approval ratings after 9/11), and this government had already announced its plan to get repressive. The timing at least was unusual, starting a week after the Paris attacks, and ending four days later without Abdeslam being found. The response was also patchy - the metro was shut down, but train stations and parliament were not, despite this being the highest possible threat level Belgium has. Now level 4 is gone, but the military remains. Until when?
The scene outside our house during lock-down
We have to ask, was the massive response proportional and was it wise?
Proportionality. The simple fact is that the Brussels response to the Parisan attacks was bigger than the Parisan response. It was bigger than London or Madrid after their major terrorism attacks. Scratch that, it was more extreme than New York City's response after 9/11. Was the risk in Brussels really the biggest risk that any western city has been exposed to since WWII? Most likely, the government over-reacted. Deliberately or in a panic, we'll never know. Governments never like to admit when they are wrong, and with security issue they never have to - they can just claim to have prevented attacks and say the records are sealed for security reasons. The Bush administration still won't admit that invading Iraq and torturing innocent prisoners was a mistake, so don't hold your breathe waiting for the Belgian government to fess up. I hate this idea of giving the government the benefit of the doubt. It is something we only do in the realm of security, even after we see incompetence or mean-heartedness in the less shadowly aspects of their job. I mean, this is Belgium - even loyal Belgians would be forced to admit that we probably did better when we didn't have a government for a few years, so let's not pretend sinners turn into saints behind closed doors.
Wisdom. What did ISIS want from the Paris attacks? Quite simply, they want to radicalise the Islamic population of Europe. They want European governments and the general public to turn against the local Muslim communities. They want harsh repression to foster resentment. They want the next generation of Muslim youths to feel like every non-Muslim hand is against them, to see an Islamic state as their only saviour. Unfortunately, the right-wing pant-wetters always respond exactly as terrorists want them to after each attack.
Let me tell you about my experiences during the lock-down. I love being able to walk through Brussels. We resettled here from America to get away from guns. The day of the lock-down I walked outside to find a military camp, complete with armoured cars and machine guns. I then waded through security theatre at the train station, everything slowing down to a crawl as armed police checked train tickets but not bags. When my little boy was finally allowed back to school I was blocked at the gates by an armed guard. My son is used to me taking him to his class and giving him a hug and a kiss; he started crying when led off instead by a guy dressed in black carrying a gun, and who can blame him? I walked through the city to find no-one, my vibrant home turned into a scared wasteland. Today on the train I saw a teenage boy led off the train by armed police - it was probably just due to not having a ticket, but the boy was almost wetting himself, like he expected to be executed on the platform. This is not my city. I feel anger, resentment, confusion. Now multiply that by a 100 and imagine how young testosterone-filled Muslim men are feeling right now in Brussels. This was not a wise move to make.
Opening evening of the Brussels Winter Markets
The lock-down is over, but Brussels still doesn't feel the same. The city lost €200 million due to the shutdown, and the long-term economic effects have just begun - tourists are cancelling trips to Belgium in droves, we even had guest professers cancel on giving university seminars because of the perception of threat. People feel isolated, they look over their shoulders. When the metro broke down today you could see the nervous glances people were making. ISIS was responsible for the Paris attacks, but the Belgian government was responsible for the impact it is having on our society. Sadly, I don't see this government making any effort to repair the damage it caused.