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Brussels’s Response to Attacks Under Scrutiny

People write chalk messages on the pavement
People write messages on the ground at Place de la Bourse (Beursplein) following the attacks in Brussels, Belgium, on March 22, 2016. © Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty

Police waved me past Maelbeek metro station in Brussels this morning as injured commuters emerged from underground, wreathed in clouds of dust. For the past 13 years, my job has been to advocate against repression, injustice, and violence. Today, I encountered these forces firsthand on my way to work.

It is only days since attacks in Istanbul targeted innocent civilians. Now, terror has struck again, this time at the heart of the place I call home. Brussels is a vibrant, diverse, and beautiful city; it is also the home of the institutions of the European Union, making it, in effect, the reluctant capital of Europe. Whether intended as such or not, today’s attacks are a challenge not just to Belgium, but to the EU as well.

The proximity of the attacks brought home more than ever before the threat that terror poses to the values and ideas I believe in and work to defend on a daily basis alongside my colleagues. This attack, beyond the tragic loss of life, threatens the principles the EU stands for: open societies based on the rule of law, justice, equality, and the protection of minorities. At a time when the EU is at its most fragile, this is an attempt to tear down the values upon which it is based. It is an attempt to fragment, destabilize, and undermine.

Already, the events are being politically exploited by those who are against free movement, migrants, and the EU itself. These responses are not only destructive, but short-sighted. A collective response that represents the EU’s spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness has the best chance of protecting lives and the societies that we hold dear.

The immediate security reaction is likely to be severe, even though Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has indicated that he does not want to put Brussels on interminable lockdown. Belgian security forces were labeled naive and unprofessional in their response to the terrorism last November in Paris. They will now want to prove otherwise. The Belgian government now has the task of ensuring that “appropriate measures” to safeguard lives will not encroach on the civil liberties that safeguard our societies.   

After previous terror attacks in Europe, the citizens of Madrid, London, and Paris largely responded with strength, compassion, solidarity, and resilience. Now it is time for Brussels to respond in similar fashion. At the same time, the EU must move beyond the factional politics that continue to undermine its ability to act effectively in the face of such crises.

At the Open Society Foundations, we will continue working to respond with the spirit that we know exists here in Brussels, in Belgium, and in Europe as a whole. For our part, our own naïveté, if it existed before today, was to think that this was a fight from afar, in which our advocacy was only for others and not for ourselves. As we return to work we will be more committed than ever to the promotion and protection of our open societies.

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