Minutes, Hours, Days and Hope after the Brussels Attacks

  • Miriam Lexmann

Flying in and out of the Brussels airport on a weekly basis, and sometimes even more frequently, I was lucky that on that particular Tuesday morning, I wasn’t there.

As soon as I received the shocking news about the terrorist attacks, my mailbox, Facebook and Twitter were flooded by messages from family, friends and colleagues who were worried about my safety.  Even Facebook itself asked me if I was safe, knowing I was only a few hundred meters away from the Maelbeek metro station, where a further attack killed even more people than did the one at the airport.

I was scheduled to fly from Brussels to Slovakia that evening, but as I followed the developments minute by minute, I realized that my flight would probably not take off.  I was supposed to moderate a commemoration of another significant event in the history of the European struggle for freedom, known to Slovaks as the Candle Demonstration. On March 25, 1988, the underground Slovak Catholic anti-communist movement organized one of the biggest mass demonstrations in communist Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution in November 1989.  People armed only with candles in their hands marched in protest against notorious violations of human rights and religious freedoms by the communist regime.  The demonstration was brutally suppressed by water cannons, savage beatings, and arrests. 

I rebooked my flight in the hope that the airport would eventually open, and went to the Bourse area of Brussels, as I knew people were gathering there to express solidarity with the victims and their family and friends.  There were candles and flowers everywhere. There were many, many people around, yet the silence was striking.

I was thinking about the two pictures in my mind – Slovaks struggling for their freedom, standing with candles in their hands against the armed regime.  And now, Europeans afraid of losing their freedom and safety, standing with candles in their hands against an enigmatic enemy that hates our freedom and liberal values.

Don’t be afraid!  These were the most common words of encouragement used by Pope John Paul II, the moral support of the anti-communist struggle in Central Europe. Today it’s une marche contre la peur, 28 years later the message is the same, Don’t be afraid!  Because fear is the greatest enemy of liberty

All flights were cancelled for an unknown number of days, and many have yet to recommence.  I, however, managed to find a former colleague who offered to give me a lift to Slovakia by car. We were joined by three more people only known to us by loose ties who called earlier trying to help them to find a way home.  The normal ten-hour journey stretched to over 14, as the same piece of German highway was now being used by all Austrians, Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovenes and Croats who could not fly home from Brussels for Easter. Terrorism and the current geopolitical challenges were the only topics discussed in the car. We did not play any music and instead often remained completely silent, reflecting.

Despite hitting the road at 5:00 am, we arrived only at the end of the commemoration, almost appropriately so, when the whole square was joined together in the Lord’s Prayer for the victims of the Brussels attacks. Then a moment of silence.  Everyone with candles in their hands.

The silence from the streets of Brussels and the silence from the square in Bratislava then transformed into the silence which is so dominant for the first part of the Easter holidays, when people are generally left to their own reflections.  For Christians, Easter symbolizes the victory of love, truth, hope and forgiveness over evil, lies, fear, and anger. Love that is not a feeling, but a decision. Truth that is not a choice, but a sense of life.  Hope that is not giving up, but believing in victory of good, and forgiveness that does not mean forgetting, but a reconciliation with the past.

When transferred into the context of the current challenges the West is facing, this Christian mystery quietly suggests the need for several societal internal transformations. We should not be speaking only of security, legal and political measures and bureaucratic procedures. To fight terrorism, we must seek to reform ourselves, individually and as a society.

Truth that is not a choice, but a sense of life

We must demand from all political leaders that they seek the middle ground between rampant political correctness and populism, because both are offensive to truth and thus support the opposite.  In Europe, at least, political correctness has been wrongly considered as a merit political discourse and has over the years been recast into some kind of elite thinking far away from daily challenges and fears of ordinary people, who have started in great numbers to seek safety and protection within radical and populist movements across Europe. As a response, a slight shift toward populism among mainstream political leaders is being justified as an attempt to bring the electorate back from far left or far right temptations. Such attempts, however, have usually brought about just the opposite by instead preparing fertile ground for radical parties that continue to hollow out the political center. Instead, truth must be the yardstick of political discourse and leadership.  And both political and civic leaders and citizens taking part in the discourse must be faithful to it, as it is the only way to bring about an effective political solutions to various crisis and challenges.

Thanks to social media, we have witnessed a revolutionary change in the way people take part in public affairs.  Internet-based platforms have become part of all social interaction and political discourse. However, recent sociological studies suggest that the trap of social media lies in their implicit incitement; suggesting that the truth is whatever one chooses from the echo-chamber of their own personal newsfeed. Since people tend to follow the news and political commentary from those sources whose opinions they generally like, they create their own world with their own truth.  Although social media represent a great leap forward in terms of freedom of speech and expression, today’s media culture, political discourse, and education curricula are lagging behind this innovation. Traditional media often now compete to see who gets more “likes” instead of who provides better-quality information

Free media represent one of the invaluable pillars of our society. Therefore, it is vital that it be consumed responsibly and not simply used as another source of entertainment. Equally the educational system needs to teach people to think critically and prepare them for the challenge that media represent, especially as they are exploited by disinformation and conspiratorial theorists in a domestic and geopolitical context, in which often what bleeds, leads without providing appropriate context.

Forgiveness that does not mean forgetting, but a reconciliation with the past

We are witnessing a very dangerous trend in which the biggest share of support for populist and radical parties is among the younger generations. As the experience of fascist and the communist regimes fades to history, not only do young people forget what kind of monstrous regimes their parents and grandparents fought, but they start to sympathize with the regimes’ ideologies dressed in the new clothes of current radical parties and movements that are often functioning as an engine of fear and so intentionally or unintentionally work to the advantage of the very core aim of the terrorist attacks – to destroy the West’s liberal-democratic value base.

Historians are finding more and more parallels between our current challenges and those before WWI or WWII and yet denials of the Holocaust or of the atrocities of the communist regimes can be found across European political parties. Political leaders and civil society must act immediately and find ways to improve the historical memory and provide space and means for reconciliation, not only among young people in the school system, but also in society at large.

Love is not a feeling, but a decision. Love is ‘caritas’

On Easter Sunday we witnessed another extensive terrorist attack. This time targeting Christians in Lahore, Pakistan. Most of the around 70 killed and 350 injured were children and women. Despite the high death toll and number of injured nearly twice as high as in Brussels, the media coverage was relatively low.

Our Western political culture is built on a clear values system. However, our actions do not always match our values. On the one hand, the global world has brought the so-called privileged much closer to the poor of the world; on the other, with an unstable economic situation in the Global North and the recent poorly managed influx of refugees in combination with growing terrorism, people tend to be more resistant to the needs of the others and supportive of building walls between the rich and the poor and between what’s ours and what’s theirs. Political leaders often seem to only react to the growing negative sentiments while not adhering to the fundamental values of our societies. As a result, foreign aid budgets are slim and the Millennium Sustainable Development Goals are far from reality. On top of this, we often pay only lip service to the human rights situation in countries where our economic interests lie. Responsible political leaders need to be clear about how our values system must be applied in a developmental and geopolitical context, and responsible citizens need to demand such behavior from their leaders and fellow citizens. 

The global world also offers greater possibilities for individual acts of charity and sharing and thus equally appeals to our individual responsibility.  Greater attentiveness to people in need might not only help to bring stability to the most poor and vulnerable countries, which often export terrorism, but also eliminate disaffection and often related radicalization of any kind in our own societies and of individuals inside of them.

Hope that is not giving up, but believing in victory of goodness

Our parents and grandparents fought and defeated two of the most evil regimes in recent history – fascism and communism. To honor their sacrifice, we must not give in to fear, but uphold our courage to defend and adhere to the universal values system upon which our societies were built!  We must remain faithful to the values for which they gave their lives even in the most desperate moments of our own struggle and fight not only the external threats, but equally focus on the internal ones. Our inner transformation can help to eliminate threats to our societies coming from both, outside and within.

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