Belgium bombings: Europeans show resilience to terrorism's 'new normal'

Though many feared an attack like the one on Brussels Tuesday, Europeans increasingly feel they can cope – and that a sense of solidarity, rather than harsh reaction, should govern their response to terror.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
People observe a minute of silence outside the EU Commission Headquarters in Brussels following Tuesday's bomb attacks on the city's Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station.

One day after Islamist militants set off three bombs across Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union is reeling – from the metro commuters who narrowly missed the Maelbeek station attack to Muslims who fear fresh suspicion to residents observing a moment of silence today for the 30-plus killed and more than 250 injured.

And across the continent, many Europeans are expressing a certain resigned inevitability about the continent's latest terrorist attack, an understanding that terrorists will continue to target innocent civilians.

Yet even amid the devastation over the first strike at the heart of the EU and fear that it will happen again, there is a sense, informed by recent history, that Europeans can cope – and that a sense of solidarity, rather than harsh reaction, should govern their response.

Since 9/11, from the attacks in Madrid and London, and in the past four months in Paris and now Brussels, Europeans are readjusting their sense of security in an open society where travel is easy, communication is constant and immediate, and radicalization is increasing. While their leaders pledge to do all they can to eradicate the risk of terrorism against the democracies of Europe, many residents also say they realize they must simply learn to cope.

“We are obligated to live with this,” says Pierre Henri, a commuter in Paris.

Europe's memories of terrorism

Partially it’s just reality in a continent that’s borne the brunt of terrorism on Western soil since 9/11 and that sits in the middle of the conflicts inspiring radicalism. The attack in the international airport of Brussels happened in the lobby, a place not protected by the money pumped into extra passenger screening. No matter how elevated the terror risk is, Europeans understand it is simply impossible to monitor all the trains that connect European cities or terraces and restaurant like those attacked in Paris on Nov. 13.

Brigitte Nacos, a German-born terrorism expert who teaches at Columbia University and co-authored the book "Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion," says that Europe’s recognition of a “new normal” in this age of terror also owes to past experience. In the 1970s and '80s, a range of terrorist groups plagued Europe, from the Red Brigades in Italy or Red Army Faction in Germany to ETA in Spain and the Irish Republican Army. 

“Europeans much more than Americans may have an institutional memory of the '70s and even going into the '80s…. People lived with it. They have much more experience with lethal terrorism than Americans,” she says. “Europeans, because of their different experience, are more realistic about it.”

That’s not to say Brussels isn’t shaken to the core. Elise Balise, a young jobseeker, joined the impromptu mourning at Bourse in downtown Brussels last night in search of solace and normalcy. “I was all day alone in my house, and I felt bad and it feels better to be around people,” she says.

Thierry Cornet, an IT technician, says he felt shock when he got to work and found out what had just happened: he had been in the Maelbeek station five minutes prior to the attack where 20 died. “It’s the first time something happens in Brussels,” he says. “We always feel so safe. We see this in the third world, but we don’t think it happens here.” 

Leaders across Europe have promised to defeat terrorists across Europe. “Our free societies are stronger than the terror,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.

Political risks

And yet, there is a growing realization that terrorists will keep targeting the innocent civilians of Europe. The chairman of Germany’s Police Union, Rainer Wendt, told a German newspaper that “we have to expect a long period of terror in Europe. London, Madrid, Paris, now Brussels. In the long run, German cities won’t be spared either,” he said.

Security services will inevitably increase preventive measures as a result of the attacks, which the public of many countries will demand in the difficult aftermath. Ms. Nacos warns that politicians could use the attack as justification for steering a hard course on tangential issues, ranging from the refugee crisis to the debates about the border-free Schengen zone.

And she says she worries that the government response against civil liberties will be harsh, as has been seen in France since the November attacks. France remains in a state of emergency that has given police greater powers to search premises and conduct raids. She and her colleagues studied the effect that the raised terror alert after 9/11 – and the constant media attention to it – had on the American public. It induced fear, which made them more willing to give up freedoms.

Mr. Henri in Paris says he is willing to give up some of these liberties for safety, but that he realizes it’s easy to fall into a vicious spiral, alienating members of society, especially Muslims.

'European solidarity of a kind we haven’t experienced before'

Many Muslims in Brussels say they are bracing for it. Limou Danbi, a young Muslim at the Bourse rally in Brussels, says it hurts that terrorists carry out attacks in the name of her religion – and that Muslims will suffer for it. “Even before the attacks, we felt there was a fear of this Islam that we represent – at least visually,” she says. “So thing won’t get better after the attacks.” 

Klas Borell, a professor of sociology at Jönköping University in Sweden who has studied Lebanese citizens’ response to their country’s frequent terrorist attacks, says the most important thing is for life to go on. He says that terrorists have two goals – to create fear and undermine solidarity – but that they’ve only succeeded in the first in Europe. “Now we’re seeing European solidarity of a kind we haven’t experienced before. Just as after the Paris attacks, citizens are showing their solidarity and willingness to help on social media.”

“Just as in Lebanon,” Mr. Borell says, “citizens will go on living their lives.”

Indeed, citizens seem resolved not to react with anger. Matthias Franzmann, a television producer in Erfurt, Germany, expressed shock and frustration over the attacks but has quickly settled on a response. He has ordered membership forms for the Greens, a party especially known for its pacifism.

“You have to take a stand somehow,” he says.

Julia Mackie, who lives in the old English cathedral city of Winchester in Britain, says she was unable to contact her husband on his phone the morning of the the London attacks on July 7, 2005. She remembers that “ghastly hour,” she says, but adds, “the attacks make me feel committed to democracy more fervently.”

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