David Harris on Brussels

March 23, 2016

On Monday evening, March 21, I arrived in Brussels from London where there had been news reports of possible multiple terrorist attacks.

It was quiet in Europe’s capital as we proceeded to our hotel just a stone’s throw from the heart of the European Union’s key institutions. The following day together with my Brussels-based AJC colleagues we were scheduled to meet with three EU commissioners, two of whom deal with terrorism and extremism, as well as Belgium’s interior minister, responsible for internal security and domestic safety.

Those meetings never took place. On Tuesday morning, March 22, I went to the nearby park for some exercise. Just after 8 A.M. it became filled with the sirens of police and other emergency vehicles as well as military trucks all racing in one direction. It was clear this wasn’t a fire or low-level crime. The activity continued, indeed intensified.

By the time I returned to the hotel and turned on the television, there were reports of an attack at Brussels Airport, with only fragmentary information about its nature and the number of victims.

It wasn’t long before news arrived of a second attack, this time at the Maelbeek subway station, a short walk from our hotel and in the very heart of the EU governance structure.

Now the official vehicles were moving in various directions, with more and more ambulances joining them. Heavily-armed guards appeared in front of our hotel together with an army truck or two.

No one knew if other attacks were coming, but the possibility couldn’t be precluded.

As the day unfolded, the grim news emerged. Thirty-four people were killed in two attacks, hundreds were injured, and at least one killer was reportedly still on the loose.

ISIS claimed credit for the assaults. Many believed it was linked to the recent capture of the long-sought mastermind of the terrorist carnage in Paris in November, Salah Abdeslam.

It wasn’t long before attention turned to Belgium itself and whether the country was particularly “ripe” for such terrorism.

After all, it was less than two years ago that four people were killed in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Last August, the Brussels-Paris high-speed train was the target of another jihadist incident, only foiled by the courage of three fast-acting American passengers and others. Tthe Paris attacks appeared to have been hatched in the Belgian city. Indeed, Laachraoui has been wanted as a suspected terrorist involved in the Paris attacks.

Moreover, some analysts point to Belgium’s large Muslim community and the creation of “parallel societies” in neighborhoods like Molenbeek. A combination of radical ideology and failed integration patterns creates the potential for Islamist recruitment and support.

Indeed, as the Belgian interior minister told us in earlier meetings, the country per capita has one of the highest if not the highest numbers of “foreign fighters” in Iraq and Syria of any European nation. Those who return to Belgium may well pose a danger. Given the number of people required to provide full-time surveillance, it becomes practically “mission impossible” to keep a constant eye on all of the returnees.

Last but by no means least, there are reports Belgium has had serious difficulty mounting a sophisticated counter-terrorism strategy equal to the nature of the threat. The country’s deep divisions along linguistic lines; the multiple levels of federal, regional, and local government; and some archaic laws (such as no police entries into homes after 9 P.M.) make a difficult job to begin with that much more challenging.

Plus–and this is true not just for Belgium–a certain complacent mindset that believes “it can’t happen here” has further complicated the picture. And this even as Europe has now seen a spate of deadly terrorist attacks from Britain to Bulgaria, Denmark to France, Belgium to Spain.

Europe has achieved so much in the postwar era. From a blood-soaked continent, it forged a new era of peace, prosperity, open societies and the triumph of “soft power” within its borders. The Kantian notion of “perpetual peace” seemed so tantalizingly close.

Now, however, Europe needs to face up to a new reality which is likely here to stay. It must continue to aspire to its lofty goals while at the same time confronting unflinchingly the lurking threats.

Denial of the problem’s magnitude, long a favorite approach in some countries, is no longer a strategy. Neither is idealistic dialogue with death-affirming ideologues on the other side a strategy. Rationalization of murderous behavior–along the lines of “what choice do poor, forlorn people have?”–is not a strategy. Nor is the delusion this is only about people with “legitimate” grievances a strategy. Finally, disregard for failed acculturation models is not a strategy, either.

For literally 20 years, in a spirit of abiding friendship, the AJC has been traveling throughout Western Europe to advance discussion on the “three Is”–immigration, integration, and identity–as necessary priorities for increasingly multicultural societies. At the same time we have repeatedly highlighted threats to Europe’s commitment to the protection of human dignity, including rising anti-Semitism and the menace it poses not only to Jews but to the very fabric of democracy itself.

I could write a book on these countless meetings, but suffice it to say that many were resistant to facing the evolving reality, preferring instead to bury their heads in the sand. It goes without saying that didn’t do the trick.

Yes, it’s late in the day, but not too late. Europe must confront and overcome the danger, and all friends of Europe must be there to help. Our way of life and system of values hang in the balance.

David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Blog entry reposted here and here.