Editorial Note: following Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, the thoughts of the entire crew of International Perspective are with the victims and their families. What follows is an account of the personal experiences of Chief Editor Jorn Vennekens, who found himself in the immediate vicinity of the events.
On Tuesday at 8.51 AM, I was passing through subway station Maelbeek when I received news about the attack in Brussels airport. An eerie feeling came over me and I felt it gradually spreading through the subway as more people received phone calls and text messages. As the subway doors closed again and we took off for Schuman station, I stood scrolling through the articles and images that illustrated what had happened in Zaventem. It appeared that the airport entrance hall had largely been destroyed and that many had suffered a horrible fate. A mere twenty minutes later, a similar blast would rip apart the location I had just left. (Featured Image © Wikimedia)
The realisation, or rather the disbelief, of having been minutes away from possible death is incredibly overwhelming. Thousands of people felt the same way that day, whether it was a matter of twenty, ten or two minutes. Some would speculate they were lucky, others would call it a matter of chance or faith. And then there are those who did not have any time to escape and who cannot speak anymore.
Despite having read and written about terrorism, ISIS and the Paris attacks, nothing could have prepared me for the day that the unthinkable struck this close to me. Fear got a hold of me and it actually still does. An inexplicable feeling that initially rushed over me and now continues to simmer in the back of my mind. Yet, however difficult it may be, we have to acknowledge that being afraid is a natural part of processing what happened. The worst thing we can do is to stigmatise fear as ‘letting them win’. Each at our own pace, we need to stop and think about what just happened.
Instead, it was a surreal experience to see both hateful and hopeful messages rapidly flood my Facebook and Twitter feeds on Tuesday. People were sharing angry calls to close the borders and others were retweeting messages of unity accompanied by tousensemble-hashtags. These messages felt empty and pointless from my desk in Brussels. On lockdown in an office on the upper floor of the Residence Palace, I could watch people fleeing and several streets being blocked off by policemen and soldiers. After the noise of a hundred sirens came the deafening silence of a desolate city. In these circumstances, I could only wonder what would be next.
Because I do not believe that we fully understand what has happened on Tuesday. The direct impact of terrorism remains a matter of imagination to most and yet we demand immediate solutions to problems that even experts do not fully understand. So in our collective rush to pick up where we left off, many fall back on superficial arguments.
The cab driver that took me home after the lockdown had been lifted, voiced the same opinion. He had been driving around Brussels to help stranded commuters and was relieved to have an open conversation with me. A Muslim himself, he explained, he was all too familiar with the negative reactions that followed such attacks. Be it after 9/11 or the Paris attacks, he had always been confronted with people that took to racist, islamophobe or xenophobe reactions. He calmly added that he did not believe that things would be any different this time.
When the initial shock and awe subsides, it will once again become clear that the attack did not take place in isolation and that many may still follow. We may catch the remaining accomplices, but we are unlikely to resolve the problem at heart any time soon. Messages of l’union fait la force (unity makes strength) and profile pictures of Belgian flags will die out, and with them so may the hope and vigour to find a just solution. Messages of hatred, on the other hand, are bound to linger and may very well be strengthened by the lack of a positive attitude. Worse still, hatred will then feast on the fear that we failed to address.
Unless we manage to alter our mindset. We must finally learn that terrorism is a complex problem, unlikely to ever fully disappear, and that we will fail to minimise its effects if we expect fast paced action. In taking a step back, we must also learn to effectively address fear and prevent hatred from dictating our future when the impulsive shouts of hope fade out. But will we? Will it be any different this time? I remain hesitant to answer this question. Ultimately this depends not just on me, but on all of us.
My thoughts remain with the victims and their families, of terrorist attacks in Brussels and elsewhere in the world.