Every so often someone asks me how I feel about terrorism. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened again yesterday.
Yesterday, as I write, three bombs were detonated in Brussels, a city where I live on and off now while Mrs SC is working there for an international organisation. Now it happens, just at present, I am away at home in Gothenburg while my wife is at home away in Brussels. The news of the first bombing – the two bombs at the international airport – came through in a news flash to my phone yesterday morning at 8.51. I know this because I was dictating a diary entry at the time and I mentioned the time when I broke off to check my phone.
The media reports were calling the airport “Zaventem”, which is its proper name, but as everyone in Brussels seems to call it “Brussels’ airport”, my first thought was that Zaventem must be the other Brussels airport, the little one out of town which the budget airlines and charter companies use. This meant I wasn’t too worried for about half an hour.
Then I realised the little airport is Brussels South Charleroi. The media reports were actually about the main international airport. And now I heard about the bomb on the Brussels underground in the rush hour. Things became more urgent.
Mrs SC has an arrangement with her office that lets her come in late on Tuesdays so she (and I when I’m there) can go swimming. When I finally reached her – by text message – she’d just got back from the swimming baths and was getting ready for work. She hadn’t heard about the attacks.
During the day, contact was a bit difficult. Presumably the mobile net was overwhelmed by traffic. However, we managed to exchange texts several times during the day and finally were able to talk in the evening. I spent the day on and off line – sometimes fielding questions from worried friends and family members (especially the more elderly and less e-literate ones), sometimes following the news updates on the social and news media, sometimes doing something practical. I dusted and vacuumed the flat. Then I went shopping. Then I made a batch of pancakes and ate them all. It was only afterwards (when I was feeing a bit sick) that I realised I’d forgotten to use any eggs.
Mrs SC got through on the phone at last around 6.30 in the evening. She told me her story.
When she left the flat in the morning, she discovered the metro wasn’t working, so she took a local tram towards the city, but that came to a halt just two stops up the line. So then she tried to catch a bus, but that also came to a halt just a few stops along. After a lot of uncertainty, a couple of security personnel turned up and told everyone on the bus and milling around at the bus stop that there was no public transport into or out of Brussels centre. It seems this information was not given over the radio to the bus or tram drivers; they were just told to stop. The security people recommended that the passengers did not go on into town on foot, but return to their homes.
Mrs SC walked a part of the way home, but then went into a cafe for a late breakfast. That was when she learned more about the bombings and finally got through to her (Swedish) boss who had been trying to reach her. He wanted to know about another Swedish colleague who was visiting Brussels, but because my wife wasn’t in the office she couldn’t go to find out what had happened to him.
This was also when she got through to her work (or they reached her) and she discovered her immediate (Brussels) boss was actually close to entering the Maelbeek metro station when the bomb went off there. The boss didn’t realise what had happened – just understood that the station had been closed – and instead walked to work.
By this time the authorities had gone out with a request that everybody stay indoors and off the streets, so Mrs SC decided it was better for her to stay on in the cafe. She was there for at least two hours, following developments on social media and news websites. This was when she was able to post a “safe” notice to Facebook and a photo of the café looking very peaceful, which helped allay fears for some friends I’m sure. After that she decided she would be better off at home, and because there was still no public transport, she walked. The weather, she said, made it a very nice day to be out walking.
When she got home – or on the way – she finally heard officially from her employers that all their members of staff were accounted for and were safe.
Yesterday – among all the other messages – was one: “I expect now you’ll be moving back to Gothenburg as soon as you can.” And another: “How can you live in a dangerous place like that?”
To which the answers are first “No”, and second, “It’s as safe as anywhere else.”
Terrorism – the proper response
I grew up in England during the worst of the Troubles. Between 1973 and 1976 (when I was betwen 14 and 17), the IRA carried out a series of bomb attacks aimed at pretty much the same sort of targets as the current IS terrorists. Railway stations and airports, tourist attractions, crowded shops, theatres and arenas. The media – perhaps repeating the language of the security services – calls these “soft targets”.
The only new element in the current wave of attacks is that they are suicide attacks. Even that’s not exactly new. I realised today, listening to the Belgian public prosecutor’s press conference that the French word for suicide attacker is kamikaze, which takes the concept back a good 70 years.
The objective of attacking “soft targets” and of trying to cause as much destruction and disruption as possible, of course, is to instil terror in the population being targeted. This is what terrorism means. The success of the terrorists depends on the extent that we allow ourselves to be frightened – terrorised – by them.
But really, why let ourselves become frightened?
Yes, of course, in the moment when we are subjected to an attack, we may be frightened. If not immediately, then in the aftermath. It’s a normal human reaction. And someone with direct experience of such an attack may even become permanently traumatised – there’s no shame in that.
But there is shame in letting ourselves be terrorised by these attacks if we haven’t been directly affected. That is cowardice – and, frankly, stupidity.
Rhetoric aside, we are not living in a war zone. We are not in a state of desperation. We have been targeted by a few petty attackers who have let themselves been fooled into giving up their own lives for a worthless cause.
Seventy years ago the people of Europe had every reason to feel traumatised after six years of total war. Today the people of Syria have a reason to feel terror after suffering five years of a brutal civil war. But the wave of Syrian refugees are not fleeing to Europe because conditions in Europe are no better than in Syria. By comparison to Syria, Europe today is an oasis of peace. A few random suicide attacks are not going to change that – unless we let them.
The IRA attacks of my childhood achieved nothing beyond murdering a small number of people and injuring a larger group. Those attacks did not instil terror into the general population then. There is no reason to expect these IS attacks will be any more successful now. And there is no reason to allow them to be any more successful.
So the proper response to terrorism, in my opinion, is not to give in to terror. Be more cautious, perhaps, be more alert if that helps you. Don’t discount risk, but keep a sense of proportion. You can die crossing the road – in fact you are much more likely to die crossing the road than as the victim of a terrorist attack. Are you terrified to cross the road? Of course not. So why give in to terror in the face of the far more remote chance of getting caught up in a bombing?
If you can, react to the terrorists by doing the opposite of what they want. Don’t be frightened, be friendly – more friendly – to your neighbours and to strangers. Don’t hate, be loving – more loving – to your family and friends. Be brave. Hold your head up. You are not a coward. The cowards are the terrorists themselves – and the people they cow.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.