Last night ISIS-inspired jihadis once again struck in Europe as three bombs went off in the Belgian capital. Federal prosecutors have said that 31 people have died and 260 people were injured however the death toll may still rise. The three bombs were in two separate locations: two explosions occurred at Zaventem Airport; the other went off at Maelbeek metro station. The response was largely positive but it is important to not let our emotional response to the attacks cloud our judgement and induce us into an irrational response.
The events of last night were less traumatic than the events of Paris in November for different reasons. Whereas the attacks in Paris were focussed at people at leisure, the attacks in Brussels were focussed at the city’s transport infrastructure. However despite this familiar pattern it does not diminish the tragedy. The first two bomb went off at exactly 8am (local time) in Zaventem airport, one near the check-in area and one close to a coffee shop a few metres back from the check-in desks. Just over an hour later at 9:11am the third explosion took place at Maelbeek metro station, which was a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of the European Commission.
Two things should be identified from these facts. Firstly, it is not clear as to whether the perpetrators deliberately made the third bomb go off at a time that mimics the date of the September 11th attacks of 2001 or whether it was coincidental, but I’m sure that will spur on conspiracy theorists. The other thing is that it is unsure as to whether the third bomb’s location was specifically decided to be close to the European Commission. Because the perpetrators of the attacks were Belgian citizens, they would have been familiar with the Belgian and European political systems and therefore the location could not be random.
The response to the attack was both heartening and sad as, although the response was largely positive, there were a few negative responses that need to be addressed. As soon as the attacks were reported people all over Europe were glued to televisions and online news sources looking for further updates. Indeed ‘Brussels’ and affiliated phrases were trending on social media both because of the news updates about the attacks but also because of people’s reactions to the news. Again most of these responses were positive but there was one notable exception which was the hash-tag ‘StopIslam’. This response is clearly abhorrent and this is the kind of response that I was warning about.
The attackers that orchestrated the events in Brussels did so for many reasons. Islamic terrorism, like that of ISIS, is motivated by a a number of factors but one of the most common is societal alienation. When the perpetrators are born in the country that they are attacking, as was the case in Brussels, a feeling of being excluded from society is the main cause of tension. Admittedly this can be caused by lots of different things (exposure to fundamentalism on the internet, poverty, western policy, socially conservative views etc.) but all these things can only motivate someone to commit such atrocities if they do not feel that they belong in their society.
The ‘StopIslam’ hash-tag is illustrative of a misunderstanding of these facts. Ignorant people have seen that these terrorists are Muslims and reacted in a bigoted fashion. By asserting that Islam is the only component of this problem, these people will demand actions from political leaders that is based in this fear. Thankfully the perpetuation of this social media trend was extended because people were citing it as something that is a problem, but the fact that people were seeking to lash out in anger against people they deem as ‘The Other’ illustrates our own social failures. It shows that we have failed to educate and inform people about terrorism and the Islamic faith; preventing such reactions needs to be a part of our collective response to these attacks.
To conclude, the issue of terrorism is multifaceted and requires an appropriately varied approach. I outlined my thoughts on this subject in my reflections on the Paris attacks in November. Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families as well as all the people of Belgium who have seen their country struck by a menace that is frustratingly hard to defeat. In my piece about the Paris attacks I finished with the words of French President François Hollande, and so I decided to leave you with the words of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel: “[We] say to them that we will stay united and together, that we will stay fully mobilised. Today’s profound sadness will rest in our hearts and stomachs, but with great determination we will act to protect our freedom and our way of life”.