My Brussels Experience

Why This Matters | Sam Parker | March 23, 2016

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Normal in Brussels has always been anything but normal. This is a city with two languages, 19 mayors, and a statue of a pissing baby as its adopted symbol. Brussels is not as beautiful as Paris, as fun as Barcelona, as massive as New York. Because of all of that, this is the city I chose to study abroad in.

Now, after the heinous attacks yesterday, there will be a new not-normal to adapt to in my adopted home. Living in DC, I’m used to bomb threats and security closures, and going to GW (and concentrating in International Security) I hear about and talk about things like the Paris attacks and the bombings in Ankara in both a personal and an academic context all the time. But what happened yesterday was different.

This was different because it happened where I live. I’d been at that airport three or four times in the week before, I’d sat in the departure hall Starbucks where one of the bombs went off, I take that metro to get around the city. On Tuesday morning I was waiting for a flight from Spain to Brussels when I got a CNN alert about explosions at the Zaventem airport. The night before, my boyfriend decided against booking a flight that would have put us in the airport when the attack happened, and we were due to fly into the Charleroi airport to the south instead. We got off the plane to military police demanding everyone’s passports and boarding passes before trying to ship us to anywhere but Brussels on a bus, and eventually had to wait out the lockdown on the airport floor. I spent the six hours we were stuck at CRL waiting for the road to Brussels to reopen grappling with what could have happened if we’d been at Zaventem. This was different because I could have been there.

“I’m not going to pretend that’s not pretty fucking terrifying. Terrorism is supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to make us scared, make us angry, and make us change who we are and our relationship with where we live because of fear.”

This was different because any of my friends could have been there. I received dozens of messages to make sure I was alright. Unlike most of my loved ones in the US, I had (according to my friend count) over fifty people to worry for. Frantic GroupMe messages and Facebook check-ins proved everyone I knew was safe. I consider myself lucky because I couldn’t imagine what the families and friends of the over 30 killed and hundreds of injured victims are feeling today.

People placing candles and writing chalk messages at a vigil in the Place de la Bourse

Prime Minister Charles Michel’s statement yesterday said, “What we feared has happened.” Belgian authorities had been trying to thwart what they knew was a dangerous jihadist network in their own backyard, and despite their efforts, they failed. CNN likes to talk about the “dangerous neighborhood of Molenbeek”, and though that’s very much an exaggeration it’s still hard to know how to feel when people like the perpetrators of the Paris attacks can hide out in your own city and then strike again. A part of me wants to be scared of Brussels because the military patrols in the streets and the periodic police raids still didn’t stop what happened.

I never thought that when I wandered across Place de la Bourse with a beer in my hand a week ago I’d be wandering across it with a candle in my hand the next. I’m not going to pretend that’s not pretty fucking terrifying. Terrorism is supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to make us scared, make us angry, and make us change who we are and our relationship with where we live because of fear.

“Here’s where we can get all Elliott School about this: ISIS is becoming scarier because they’re losing.”

I didn’t know how to feel yesterday because it’s harder to grapple with when it happens in your own city and it’s harder to comprehend when you feel like the authorities didn’t do everything they could to stop it.

Today, I decided I’m not going to be scared.

The Grand Place on Wednesday

Here’s where we can get all Elliott School about this: ISIS is becoming scarier because they’re losing. As of February they’re losing ground fast. ISIS is turning to terror attacks on lower-security targets abroad to portray strength even as they become weaker. Terrorism is political violence that is designed to spread maximum fear with minimum cost. Brussels was an easy hub for their activities in Europe because it’s actually 19 disconnected municipalities that can be pretty ineffective at communicating, it has an isolated Muslim population with inequality in employment and opportunities especially for young men, and the complicated Belgian government is in many ways an artificial state divided between French and Flemish communities that can have a hard time moving quickly. ISIS exploited a weird, fractured, inefficient country like Belgium to try to strike at the heart of Europe.

I’m still not going to be scared of calling Brussels home for the next few months because living in fear – no matter where you live – is exactly what ISIS wants.

It’s a harsh reality, but the attack in Brussels was not the first and will not be the last. To succumb to that fear is to let them get what they want. Yes, this happened when I was living in Brussels, but the same thing happened when friends of mine were living in Paris, and could happen when I’m back in DC or truly anywhere. The point is to make ordinary people feel unsafe everywhere. The best way to get back at them is living your life anyway.

Go, study abroad. Go, take that spring break to Europe or wherever in the world you want. At noon today I stood in Place de la Bourse to remember those who were murdered yesterday as they were just living their lives. Tonight, I’m going to a bar with everyone in my study abroad program because I’m going to keep living mine.

Brussels is a weird, esoteric city that takes pride in not taking itself too seriously. When I was at the vigil downtown, an opera singer stood on the steps of the Bourse and sang a beautiful impromptu aria to the crowd, and as soon as she finished (to thunderous applause) a few drunken middle aged men responded with an off-tune Jacques Brel song and half the crowd sang along. Our program’s directors told us to take a lead from the locals: people are out on the streets eating fries and going about their day like they always would, determined to not let the terrorists get what they want. The world is with Brussels today, and knowing this city like I do, I can promise the world, Brussels is going to be okay.