By Lisa De Bode
They were waiting at the check-in desks of American and Brussels Airlines in the departure hall of Brussels Airport, saying goodbye to loved ones, others commuting from one European capital to another. And then, 14 of them were killed and 81 injured in yet another act of horror committed by the Islamic State.
Another explosion hit near the Starbucks café where I had coffee in November before boarding a flight to New York. I was returning from a reporting trip to Molenbeek, a Brussels district near the city center and home to at least three Paris suspects, including Salah Abdelslam, a Belgian-born French national and the last surviving Paris attacker.
After Paris, the mood was gloomy—more than half of Belgians believed another attack was likely. In December, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel canceled New Year’s celebrations, fearing an attack. The Christmas lights on Brussels’ Grande Place went dark.
His suspicions were right. On Tuesday, the Islamic State struck at the heart of Europe: people of 163 nationalities live in Brussels, one of the most diverse cities of the EU and home to its institutions, including the European Commission and other paragons of the bloc’s famed freedom of movement and open-border policy.
But those ideals have started to crumble in recent months. Borders are closing, privacy laws are being rewritten, and the number of xenophobic attacks against refugees is on the rise.
In September, Abdeslam reportedly smuggled two Paris attackers into Europe through crowds of refugees in Budapest. This month, fearing more intrusions, EU officials brokered a deal that rights organizations say violates international humanitarian law: for each so-called migrant sent back to Turkey, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee.
Michel said he believed we were being confronted with a new stage in the history of Europe: “We have to defend our way of life, our freedom to go to the cinema, to go to the theater, to go out. We all have to be mobilized.”
To what extent, and what that means, remains unclear. I fear a future in which we all become subservient to seeing something, then saying something, a familiar American dictum.
On a family visit in December, military troops dotted train stations, public spaces, and court houses (to little avail), their presence a harbinger of the militarized future European cities may face as they ready themselves for another attack. Berlin, many fear, could be next.
Lisa De Bode is a New York-based Belgian journalist.
[Photo courtesy of Paul IJsendoorn]