Thoughts on Belgium

By Ine Lippens, an Erasmus student at Durham last year

Just like so many today, I’m pressing cmd n on my Macbook. Blank page, just what I need. It took me a long time before I could come to this point, before I could start writing about my thoughts on yesterday’s events. Before reflections and reactions of others made sense to me. Or not.

I could, like so many opinions I read today, start with where I was and what I was doing when I heard the terrible news. I’m not going to. I think we all felt shocked. I don’t think it is a major addition to the cruelty of the events, and to the abruptness of it. I could start mentioning that the attacks felt very threatening, as they happened in Belgium, in Brussels. A city only roughly 50 km away from Ghent. I’m not going to. I did not feel more frightened than in November, when Paris lost its light for a moment.

I could start analysing the terrorist attack. Could it have been prevented or not? Who knows. It happened. Too late for that. Probably it could have been, considering the current situation in Brussels, the heart of Europe. After the arrest of Abdelslam on Friday, perhaps even more could have been done.

Of course, I feel scared and sad. Astonished by what happened. Speechless when I see the items of dead and wounded people at Zaventem’s departure hall, tears on their faces, fears in their eyes. I feel wretched when I hear people screaming after the bomb explosion at Maalbeek metro stop. I felt the tears filling my eyes when Federica Mogherini, Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the EU, started crying and mentioned today was a very difficult day for all of us. I feel something unpleasant, something bad, seeing the images of all those poor, poor people. It made me sad. Definitely. It made me sad, but not especially scared.

I became scared when I started looking for reactions, online. We all know Facebook is the best source. I felt scared when I saw people starting to blame the entire Muslim community, again. Stigmatising them, once more. I felt scared when I saw people arguing that we need to protect ‘our’ culture, as our fathers and grandfathers made the world we live in now, that we have to cherish that world, that the current change is a threat. I felt disgust when I saw enraged reactions on the call for the help of unaccompanied foreign minors, ‘own people first’. I became scared by the official media as well, mentioning ‘that the terrorists spoke Arabic before they blow themselves up’. I became scared by the thoughts of Belgians.

Is it not cruel that we speak immediately of a ‘we’ and a ‘they’? That we make a clear distinction between our culture, that we need to protect, and their culture, source of all the evil? Why? We, means me as well. I caught myself doing exactly the same today as I gave my opinion to a friend. And I think it is wrong, it is wrong to make that distinction. Because what is our culture? What do we need to protect? Honestly, if there is such a thing as our culture, as something completely ours… I don’t feel it, I don’t know it. If we have to protect the culture of our fathers and grandfathers, surely not our mothers and grandmothers, have built, what are we doing? We can’t go back, too much has changed. Every single one of those comments and reactions want us to go back, back to a ‘better’ past. As if change can’t be good? We live in a changing world, a world that’s becoming more and more connected. It brings fears, but chances as well. Let’s think of the chances, not only of the fears. One of the chances is the growing mobility of people, and the opportunity to meet more and more people from across the world. Learning about different cultures, finding resemblances and differences as well. Being excited about the unknown parts of others, trying to get what people think and do, trying to understand and trying to widen your personal horizon. Being grateful for the chances of meeting new people, it is clear to me that it helps me to be less scared and more positive about this world. It helped me to put things into perspective, to see that ‘our’ culture indeed, is only one option, in a sea of thousands. It helped me realise how relative a notion as ‘culture’ is, too.

Today I experienced again how different it can be. After the attacks, Belgians were scared. Understandable, because it was wrong, dreadful and horrible what has happened. It can never be explained away. It is inexcusable. But, the way some people dealt with it, worried me. We and they, as if all the unknown is responsible for it. Some people like to live their life with blinkers, holding on to what they see as their values in an obstinate way. Afraid to think outside the box, afraid to look what new Belgium has to offer them. Call it the land their forefathers built, and when it starts crumbling, the more and more recalcitrant they become, holding on to their Flemish, Belgian, maybe Western-European values. Living to have a family, a house, and a job. Living for this life. Perfection. A safe, happy, cosily cosseted life, that is good and that you can live without looking too much around us, without questioning too much. As long as everything goes as we want it to. So long as no one threatens our mental and ethical way of life, we are fine. When this ideal is attacked, people start expressing themselves in more and more radical ways. Judging and fearing everything that’s different. I heard and read a lot of posts today, saying that we need to protect our Western values. Openness, tolerance and democracy. Well, by reacting like this, we’re not going to help protecting them, we’re going to destroy them ourselves.

Every time (Western) people are killed in terrorist attacks, Paris, now in Brussels, a wave of collective disgust swamps the world. It makes us angry. We want to pray for cities, some suggest for the world. It makes sense. We all know it is wrong, we all know cruelties like this should never happen. There is not a lot that makes people angrier than the death of innocents. In five minutes, there’s going to be a minute of silence for the victims, understandable, and appropriate, of course. All the beautiful words and deeds of peace made me shiver and made my heart weak, it shows people can be there for each other, no matter the differences.

People are looking for different ways to explain their anger. One is being scared of the unknown, acting to the exclusion of others. Attacks like this remind some people that our precious Western values can be shaken, and that we should respond with repression. Back to the world we once lived in. I don’t believe in that, I don’t want to live in a society which is holding on to values that are completely out of date. We are where we are now, a complex and turbulent journey has brought us here. We can’t go back, impossible. Let’s therefore stop thinking that we can. Let’s lose that idea, let’s focus on the chances a changing society can bring us. Let’s give fear a place in our thinking, but let’s try to see it in another way. Let’s try to move forward, because as we are dividing the world now. And while we are, we’re not going to get anywhere. Let’s stand together, because I still believe in something like: united we stand, divided we fall. Maybe this sounds naïve. Probably it is. Much more difficult and complex than the positive words I am writing now. But I can’t let my beliefs go, the values I’m standing for. It is brave to be naïve these days.

Today I might be praying for Brussels, for the world. I hope I can stop praying and start acting tomorrow. I hope we can make the world a better place, #tousensemble.

Photograph: Jiuguang Wang via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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