As emergency services are still digging through the rubble of Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek Metro Station in Brussels, it is clear that the full scale of the devastation will take days if not weeks to assess. At this point there are already 28 reported dead and 151 injured. While no organization has claimed responsibility yet, the terrorist attacks seem most likely related to the recent arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks of last year.
In fact, eerily prophetic, the Belgian Minister of Interior, Jan Jambon, had said on Monday: "We know that stopping one cell can... push others into action. We are aware of it in this case." Given that both attacks look like suicide bombings, and involve soft targets, i.e. easily accessible, they look like brutal acts of desperation by individuals who expected to be caught any day (as a consequence of Abdeslam's arrest) rather than as a well-planned terrorist attack, as the one in Paris last November.
The Brussels terrorist attack, just as the related attack in Paris, shows many things, some more important than others.
First and foremost, it shows that terrorism is the new normal for Western Europe, at least for now. Citizens and politicians should acknowledge, rather than simply accept, this. To be clear, this is not the first time this is the case -- think of the extreme left terrorism of the 1970s or the decades-long terrorist campaigns of separatist organizations like ETA in Spain and the IRA in the United Kingdom. The main difference is that terrorism is now affecting more countries and more people.
Second, the attacks prove that even the strongest emergency and security measures cannot make a (democratic) society 100 percent safe! Both Brussels and Paris are cities on the highest state of alert, fully aware they are prime targets of Jihadist terrorists, and were nevertheless hit.
Third, although some terrorist attacks have caused massive destruction of lives and property, most show at best a modest level of organization - hence the almost exclusive use of soft targets. While this makes the terrorists generally less lethal, it also makes them even harder to detect.
Fourth, most of the Jihadi terrorists have a relatively clear socio-demographic profile, which depicts only a small sub-set of the European Muslim population: second-generation 'immigrants' and 'native' converts, several of which have recently fought in the Middle East (or tried to) and have a criminal background, unrelated and often directly opposed to their later terrorist path. Many have radicalized in prison and were recruited either in prison or soon after being released. But terrorists are not only 'losers of integration;' some are from middle class families and have a relatively high level of education. At the same time,
Fifth, and foremost, Jihadi terrorism has both domestic and foreign roots. It is mostly directed or inspired by foreign terrorist groups, mainly groups like ISIS in the Middle East, but almost exclusively carried out by domestic terrorists with largely local grievances. As Olivier Roy has argued, the 'Jihadi problem' is not so much about religion or politics, it is a 'generational revolt.' The domestic Johadis terrorists feel squeezed between the (non-Muslim) 'natives' and the Muslim establishment, mostly older first-generation immigrants, which ironically both treat them as 'guest' in their own country of birth.
This all is obviously not to say that Europe is responsible for its own terrorism problem. It has created the conditions for the resentment that drives the terrorists, but the vast majority of people in those conditions do not resort to terrorism. But it also doesn't mean that simply destroying foreign terrorist threats like ISIS would get rid of the 'Jihadi threat' in Europe.
Politicians from across the political spectrum are going to call for strong and swift responses and claim that this 'new threat' requires more competencies for the security services. They are going to promise to 'keep us safe,' even though they know that they can never guarantee full security. That is why it is so important that right now, at the height of the shock and trauma, liberal democratic citizens and politicians remain alert and vigilant and reject the utopias offered by opportunistic politicians.
Neither authoritarianism nor nativism can save liberal democracy in Europe! A state of security directly undermines the rule of law and the protection of rights of all citizens, not just those of the 'guilty' or 'others.' Similarly, keeping immigrants and refugees out of Europe does little to undermine the supply of terrorists, which are almost all European born-and-bread. In fact, it will only strengthen their resentment as well as their discrimination by an ever more fearful 'native' population.
Only if we acknowledge that our multi-ethnic societies, just like many mono-ethnic societies before them, are faced with divisions within each ethnic group, not just between them, can we learn to live with, and hopefully one day overcome, the new normal of terrorism. We have to look inward, rather than only outward, see the problems in 'them' and 'us,' and realize that a liberal democracy can only thrive if people trust the political system and each other.