As Brussels emerges from a surreal and at times scary four days, which saw the threat of terrorism paralyze a European capital for the first time, residents are struggling to understand the meaning of what they’ve been through – and what they face ahead.
Schools and public transport have been shuttered, museums closed, and major events canceled across the city, which is not only the capital of Belgium but the hub of the European Union and the base of NATO, in a scene that at times has rivaled a Hollywood set.
With schools and the subway system set to reopen Wednesday, it’s unclear what kind of threat has been minimized, if any at all. Meanwhile, the patience and resilience – and even sense of humor – that Belgians have exhibited in an unprecedented security showdown for a Western capital is quickly turning into probing.
Chief among the questions: Is this the length a city must take to protect itself from new threats of urban terror? Or does the experience here show that Europe has been thrust into a new era, forced to accept its vulnerabilities like so much of the rest of the globe?
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Eric Vanderelst, an engineer who usually takes the metro to work but since it was closed down found himself, uncomfortably, on a commuter train Tuesday. “It helps you to better understand images of Tel Aviv or Afghanistan, when you see blasts on the screen that always seemed so far away,” he says.
Brussels was thrust into a lockdown after a raid Friday revealed weapons and material that authorities said could be used in an attack modeled after the one a week before in Paris. The Nov. 13 attack, coordinated from a cell in Belgium, left 130 dead in sites across the city. Police are searching for Salah Abdeslam, suspected as a key player in the Paris attack who fled and headed toward Belgium.
Brussels’ Gare du Midi train station, typically packed on Mondays with commuters preparing for a new workweek, was swarming instead with security officers and cameramen this week.
No concrete results
The offices of the federal parliament, usually bustling, were empty. Some restaurants were open but most closed down before late afternoon’s sunset. Tourists, with nowhere to go, took selfies of military tanks in downtown Brussels.
As police have continued their investigations, Prime Minister Charles Michel said late Monday that the city would gradually reopen. Some museums did so Tuesday. The schools and public transport system are next.
But authorities extended the level four terror alert – its highest – through Monday, causing some to question whether the lockdown had lasted too long with no concrete results.
“It’s not the best answer to lock down an entire city for too long. It’s understandable politically for one to three days, to protect the population when there is real intelligence showing that something will happen,” says Thomas Renard, global security expert at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. “But you also hope politically that this intelligence information you’re collecting will get you closer to arresting someone or finding targets."
“People don’t have enough information on the investigation or security so people are a little lost,” Mr. Renard adds. “Where are the people we’re looking for? How much of a direct threat is there?”
Some expect a political backlash in the coming days.
“I think people were reassured by the power of the state in the first days, but now there is a growing lack of understanding of the measures that have been put in place,” says Ben Caudron, a Belgian sociologist, who says parts of downtown Brussels look like a battle zone, an exaggerated response for a Western democracy. “If you compare this situation to countries where there is a real threat all the time, it puts things in perspective.”
Aaite Rillaerts, a brasserie owner on the outskirts of Brussels whose eatery was nearly empty Tuesday during what he says is a usually packed lunch hour, faults the government’s handling of the situation. As soon as France emerged from national mourning after it lived through its worst night of violence since World War II, it called everyone to the bistro and terrace to reclaim their way of life. In Brussels, by contrast, authorities are calling everyone inside.
Humor in a Twitter blitz
The situation is of course different. If Paris was uniting in solidarity, Brussels is facing an unknown. Still, Mr. Rillaerts asks, “What does a lockdown do? This is what terrorists want. We are all inside, afraid. If we are all happy, and show they can’t beat us, then they’ll leave us alone.”
In some ways Belgians have found ways to reclaim their normal selves. For those not familiar with the country's humor, a Twitter blitz of images of cats and kittens fighting terror, after authorities asked Belgians not to Tweet details of their police raid, offered a small glimpse.
Some would say this has been their act of resistance – and resilience.
“It shows that people are not terrorized by all of this,” says Mr. Renard. “Obviously a number of people are scared, but a large part of the population still wants to continue on.... In response to the terrorist threat, Belgians have shown a tremendous resilience to what’s happening."