Reflections on Brussels From a Local

A symbolic battle is being fought on the streets of Brussels, and you, me, and everyone who dares read the news is part of it. Welcome to the new age of security, where the very fact that news is reported to millions is so crucial to the impact of the events themselves.

Each year since 2002, The Swiss Federal Institute of technology has published the KOF index of globalization. Measuring economic, social, and political dimensions, it serves as a marker of the nation’s global reach and tolerance for global influence within its borders. The global influence tolerated within each nations’ boarders. Belgium has consistently topped the list in recent years. While you may question how much global influence Belgium has; take a minute to think about what Belgium represents. It is the seat of the EU parliament; the business and political de facto capital of Europe, the centre of mass immigration influx into one of the most economically and political stable regions of the world.

Walking the streets of Brussels it is impossible not to hear the usual jumble of northern European languages– English, French, German, Dutch and Flemish – from loud and dominating men in suits. Then listen to the waitress serving their hot chocolate and the man in the high-vis jacket collecting rubbish. Moroccan, Turkish, Arabic, western nations mixing with northern Africa; the cacophony is as colorful as the population.

Belgium is widely known as the country of permanent immigration – it would suffocate without it. The population, the service-based economy, even the very nature of the place as a centre of global and regional governance, simply could not be upheld with out the inflow of people. Now, the symbols of European significance and the western embrace of multinationalism begin to eek out of the woodwork.

Belgium is the ultimate melting pot. Forget the States, Belgium is the nation of immigrants and Brussels the shining emblem of all things western. The tolerance and naturalization policies are anything goes, and the city revolves around the European Parliament. You can speak any language you please and someone will eventually understand you. International flights bring in products, policies, ideas and game-changers in all their forms, not just daily, but by the hour. This place is teeming. Now it becomes crystal clear why the events in Paris in November caused a three-day shut down of Brussels. As the melting pot of all things tolerant and capitalist, it would very logically be the next target.

So what? The streets emptied, businesses had a long weekend, Kids had a few days off school and dads got a few days off work. Sounds great. But the lingering aftermath is what is haunting me.

We’re very desensitized to violence these days. Shootings, raids, we’re hearing it all on a daily basis, and armed police on the no longer turn heads. I find my self even more blasé with it all, having grown up in a military family and lived on army bases my whole life, behind the security of the barbed wire fences that surround the compounds. It’s an unusual way of life as it is, isolated and shrouded in khaki beige barriers, but what perturbs me is that it’s no longer just me and my family under the watchful eye of the squaddies, it’s everyone.

It would be ridiculous to propose that they’re watching us specifically; the law-abiding citizen student hopping off the plane for the holidays; but walking through the terminal, having just been detained to find out that my passport has the identical ID number as a stolen Danish passport – it sure did feel that way. I spot two, uniformed and armed to the necks, strolling through baggage collection. Nothing too odd. Walk ten steps further and there are two more, steel gazes as I glide through ‘nothing to declare.’ Down three flights of stairs to the trains, and on every level, two more, two more, two more.  I nip into the toilets on the platform, and two more enter the restrrom, clearly on a set trail to check every inch of the infrastructure every hour. Sitting uneasily on the platform bench, I wonder why I’m so on edge after spending a lifetime on army bases.

 

Photo by Matthew Kenwrick

Photo by Matthew Kenwrick

 

Security is a relevant term. Are we always safe? Are police on every Belgian train platform going to make us safer? Probably not. The battle we’re facing today is nothing to do with the actualities of guns, thorough checks and midnight raids. It has every thing to do with the process of smoking out the façade of mystery. What the Belgian capital is now doing is showing off its game face. The symbol of force is a powerful one, and I realize that I feel so uneasy because it is so necessary that I do. This construct that the Belgian police have created, the visibility of high power weapons and the apparent veracity of arrests and raids – it’s working.

December 29th saw the arrests of two men in possession of military training uniforms, along with ISIL propaganda materials. They had no connections to weapons, but were accused of planning “several emblematic locations in Brussels during the end of year festivities,” according the federal prosecutor. It hits home that what we are up against is more dangerous than a gun: it’s as simple as an idea. Ideas travel so fast, so far, disregarding borders, weapons laws, costs and even languages. Ideas are symbolic, and can be boiled down to a single image in a newspaper, an image you pick up and bring into your kitchen for all the family to see.

Fear as a weapon in itself is more powerful than any piece of an armory, and as such the visibility of the Belgian show of force becomes much more crucial. Their weapon is their presence.  Brussels continued its no-nonsense response, even cancelling the New Years Eve festivities in the centre of the city, which last year gathered crowds of over one hundred thousand.

We never know what’s around the corner. A Belgian police officer on every street with a very visible gun are not what make the world more predictable, or safer. Our reactions to these situations – how we own and embody the city – define what the events mean for the world. Undeniably, the heavy armed presence scares even me – even after living in Northern Ireland towards the end of the troubles and Indonesia after the hotel bombings – but so they should be seen and their presence felt. We should all know the symbolic battle we rage everyday.

Words by Megan Thorpe,
Travel Editor of Durham’s Indigo Magazine