Our fears came true in Brussels: now what?

Defence & Human Security, News

An underlying current of fear has run through Europe since the attacks on Paris last November. While life returned to normal in France, ‘normal’ was marred by a continuing state of emergency, increased surveillance, stronger policing and detention powers, neighbourhood raids, and an increased presence of police and weaponry.

For five days Brussels, Belgium, launch site for the Paris attacks, was locked down and social media blacked out, as 1,000 police officers searched for the logistical coordinator of the Paris attacks, Saleh Abdeslam. After months of raids, he was finally captured by chance on March 18.

But Abdeslam’s arrest did not end the fear because it revealed the formidable depth of the network responsible for the Paris terror– its mobility, evolution, organization, and capabilities. For weeks intelligence operatives warned that another attack was looming. Abdeslam himself admitted that he had planned more violence. The question was not if, but when, where, and how.

On March 22 two bombs exploded at the airport in Brussels, and another on the subway line, killing at least 35 people.

Now what?

Belgium is in the spotlight. Its security forces have been described as “a perfect example of organised chaos.” The fragmentation of authority, lack of coordination and communication, and narrow focus are mirrored and amplified at the European level, where people can travel freely across a dozen countries but responsibility for policing, security, and intelligence remains national, fragmented, and uncoordinated with other EU forces. Even the seemingly benign task of translating names into local languages is done differently in different states, so that an individual can have multiple identities. Obviously, better coordination is needed.

There were intelligence failures – failures to act on tips, failures to connect the dots, failures to understand how extensively ISIS operatives had been embedded in Europe. We must learn from these mistakes. But the very nature of contemporary terrorism – the combination of coordinated, paramilitary attacks with acts of violence by lone wolves – means that detecting and stopping everyone who would do us harm may be impossible.

Experts call this the “new normal.”

I disagree.

Violence against civilian targets is not new in Europe or in the rest of the world.

Infographic: Victims Of Terrorist Attacks In Western Europe | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

Infographic: Victims Of Terrorist Attacks outside Western Europe | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

And this idea of a new normal suggests that we must accept not only a constant fear of violence, but the amplified drumbeat that accompanies it: more suspicion, more raids, more police power, more surveillance, more control, more barriers.

But in an age of virulent, violent ideals; easy access to weaponry; and robust networks of communications, money, expertise, and local knowledge it is incredibly difficult to prevent terrorism with more security and more state power. ‘More’ also inflicts high financial, social, and political costs. What price are we willing to pay to fend off a threat from which we can never be fully protected? Terrorism does take lives. But terrorism is not an existential risk to our societies. What CAN tear apart our communities and erode the basic values and principles that underpin our governments is our demand for more security, more strength, more counter-violence.

There are other options.

Let’s focus on resilience. I have written about resilience in the context of the attack on Paris. It remains a useful way to think about responses to events that cannot always be predicted, prevented, or protected against. Events like acts of terrorism.

Resilience is not about brute force or fierce resistance. It is not built with walls or weaponry. It is a social strength: the ability to bend without breaking, to continue to function normally. As a resource against terrorism, resilience is the ability to limit the immediate damage to life and infrastructure and to maintain our long-term social and political institutions and values.

Resilience can help communities such as Molenbeek grapple with the social and political contexts that help to draw people into violent networks. Resilience has been deployed in this way in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. But too often it operates under the banner of ‘more’ – more policing, surveillance, intelligence, and coercion – and becomes counter-productive.

Resilience is not about giving in. When and where tools are available to identify and disrupt those who would do us harm, they should be used. But we should choose these tools with care and reject the cacophonous calls for walls, weapons, and enmity. Too much protection will cost us our resilience. When that falls, we are left with only our fear.


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