I was appalled by the distasteful comments about "Brussels being a mess", which was totally the same foolish "Schadenfreude" we heard from some Europeans after 9/11 saying "the U.S. asked for it." This is bad manners, a bad comment at a bad time, but also dead wrong and obscures the complicated nature of the extremist muslim terrorism we are dealing with. The attacks on Brussels Airport and Metro was sadly another event in a terrible line of attacks on our democratic way of life. It is neither isolated nor the last one. This can happen anytime anywhere in Europe or elsewhere.
It was striking how Belgians reacted. With dignity and resilience. In defiance, the people went to work the next day, schools did not close down, shops opened and where they could, they operated the public transportation system. It says a lot about the country. Both the French and the Dutch language media was calm, measured, avoided sensationalism. This is important for keeping society together, in preventing it from falling into debilitating depression. As a sign of it's will to fight back, Belgium continues to take its share in the military efforts against ISIS.
True enough, Belgium has made huge mistakes. It has been absorbed in petty infighting about regionalism, the at times laughable conflicts between the Flemish and the Walloon communities. This has not helped the pooling of resources. There has been a clear neglect of the Muslim community in Brussels. Competing police forces in Brussels, did not share information among themselves. Authorities failed to follow up on leads about the terrorists.
But then Belgium is a full-fledged and open democracy and no other city epitomizes this better than Brussels, where I lived with my family for more than ten years. On the whole it is indeed a place of tolerance and equality. It's openness is a huge benefit to its political, economic and cultural life in peace time. The same openness however is a challenge in times of war. For Belgians know they are now at war. A war between the forces of backwardness and destruction and the forces of openness and acceptance of the future.
Brussels is owned by everybody. And maybe nobody. It is the capital of Flanders, but there aren't too many Flemish people living in the city proper. The "Brusselaars" (the Brusselsians) nurture the spirit of live and let-live. Unfortunately, they all seem to live in their own little "miniversums", their own little worlds.
The presence of the European and Transatlantic institutions made Brussels more of a high-value target for terrorists. There are the thousands and thousands of Eurocrats and Natocrats living in the city. For most, the only "real" Belgians they have met are perhaps their landlords, the waiters in restaurants. Most have probably never been to a Moroccan tea-house or maybe not even to a real Belgian pub. Many of these people are now commenting from the sidelines. Instead they should start taking ownership of this great city, including its problems and help create a more cohesive Brussels.
Radicals want the response to be xenophobic, brutal and undemocratic.They want Belgium to close down, build real and virtual walls, like some other countries. But Belgians, by their reactions made it very clear, that they will not back down. A Flemish war reporter was asked about the differences between the terrorist attacks he had seen in Syria and Baghdad and other places. His answer was that the authorities in Belgium responded swiftly and in a well-organized manner. The army, the police, the fire-brigades, the medical services all did their job, with a high level of professionalism. And we should add: remained in the framework of a democratic state. The average Belgian knows and understands that the "us versus them" rhetoric is destructive and damaging. It is not the solution.
Perhaps less visible to outsiders, the difficult soul-searching is already underway among the political and intellectual elites, and the man on the street as well. They need to face the failures of the past, and set as a priority to better integrate their Muslim populations. To appreciate those in the community who consider themselves Belgians first and Muslims second, young people, who see their future as worthy members of a democratic society.
A young boy of fifteen from the district of Molenbeek, simplistically seen as the "breeding ground for terrorism", was asked why some of his peers had joined the Jihad and he did not. His response was simple. "I am a Belgian...and I am not stupid". Belgians of all backgrounds must take his message to heart. For in this lies the solution, not just for Belgium, but for the rest of Europe, to this difficult and complex problem of migrants and integration and indeed terrorism.
Belgium is sending a message to the rest of Europe, It will stand and resist. Belgians will fight back. They will not lock down their homes, their institutions, their society. They will react with determination and toughness to an attack on their way of life, but never give up the freedoms they so much cherish.
They will not surrender to the forces of evil.