Reflections After the Brussels Bombing (22 March 2016)
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Yesterday (22 March 2016), I was writing an article for Report 103, on the twisted approach to innovation in the airline industry, when a friend sent me a text message: "Hear the news?" Somehow, I knew she did not mean good news. I checked the Guardian to discover that there had been explosions in Brussels Airport.
The edge of Brussels Airport is about six km (four miles) from my home office. I've probably been there 100 times since I've lived in Belgium. I was supposed to by flying out of there next week. For better or worse, I know that check-in area really well. It was heart-rending to see pictures of it destroyed by bombs.
Needless-to-say, I never finished the article on innovation in the airline industry. But don't worry, you'll see it in a future issue of Report 103. Instead, I would like to share with you three somewhat unconventional (I believe) reflections on what happened to my adopted country yesterday.
But first, a word of warning. This article includes a very small amount of adult language. If that will offend you, please do not read further. You can skip this article and still live a happy life. If you can cope with a tiny bit of rude language, however, please read on.
People Are Good
After a terrorist attack like the one in Brussels, or in Istanbul, or in Paris last year, or in New York in 2001, we tend to focus on the evil of the perpetrators. But the truth is, horrible events like these also demonstrate the good in people; and most people are good. Yesterday, I was inundated by messages from concerned family, friends and acquaintances, some of whom I had not heard from in years, from all over the world.
Many taxi drivers in Brussels drove people for free. People near the airport opened up their homes to transit passengers stranded at the airport. The number of people who went out of their way to do good far outweighs the people responsible for the explosions (we'll get to them in a moment). The same was true in Paris. People opened up their homes, fed and gave beds to others who were stranded by the explosion. A Canadian friend tells how, on 11 September 2001, she and her neighbours fed and provided a place to stay for the hundreds of passengers whose flights to New York were diverted to the airport near her.
Remember that, please, above all else. People are mostly good. That, more than anything, will get you through events like this.
Getting into the Mind of the Terrorist
Another friend made an interesting comment yesterday, something like: "I am trying to get my head around the thinking of someone who wakes up in the morning and says, 'today I am going to blow myself up, and kill as many innocent people as I can in the airport.'" That's a good question and one that people should be asking.
There is a tendency, especially among those who want to find simple explanations for horrible events like this, to blame the terrorist attack on Islam. Unfortunately, too many of the people making this mistake are political leaders, including the leading contender for the US Republican Party. This explanation is way too simplistic, unfair and dangerous. I have a number of friends who are Muslims to varying degrees. They do not wake up in the morning thinking about bombing airports. They wake up pretty much as you and I do, concerned with getting their kids off to school, hoping traffic won't be bad, dreading the 10:00 meeting and so on. Frankly, it's boring stuff. But safe, boring stuff.
The people who bomb airports are shits. They may claim and even believe they are doing what they are doing in the name of some deranged god they have modelled on Islam. But they are wrong. They are deluded shits. That is a very different thing than being a Muslim. No loving god wants her followers to kill innocent people.
It is also important to bear in mind that terrorism in the name of Islam is a relatively new phenomenon. When I lived in the London area in the late 70s and early 80s, the term "terrorist" evoked thoughts of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In Spain's recent past, terrorists meant Basque terrorists. The second worst terrorist attack in the USA was the action not of Muslims, but of an angry white guy: Timothy McVeigh, in 1995.
I believe it makes more sense to get into the minds of the young men (for they are mostly young men) who somehow believe that killing innocent people is a good thing to do; that it is something for which their god would give them a free pass into heaven. Because if we could change those minds, it would truly be the greatest weapon against terrorism.
Unfortunately, the message many in the west are communicating to these young men is: we hate your religion, we hate followers of your religion − including you− and we do not want you in our country. Telling these young men that we despise them is unlikely to change their minds. If anything, it reinforces their beliefs, making it easier for them to believe that we are the enemy and that it is all right to kill us.
Propaganda was an effective tool during the cold war. Friends who grew up in East Berlin, when it was under Soviet control, tell me that they knew perfectly well that those living in the west were living a better, freer and more diverse life than they were. They mostly knew this from television and radio broadcasts as well as the odd Western magazine that made across the wall.
I believe that propaganda can be an equally effective tool against terrorism. But we need to understand the minds of these terrorists in order to create propaganda that speaks to them.
Do Not Be Afraid
While bicycling along the Leuvensesteenweg (a major road between Brussels and Leuven) yesterday, I noticed at the side of the road a cross with the picture of a boy who looked to be about 16 or so (between the ages of my sons who are 14 and 18). It is a tradition here, and in many places, to put up a memorial cross at the site of fatal accidents. In view of the boy's apparent age, he was probably killed in a bicycling accident. Lots of young people cycle along that road into Leuven.
It was a stark reminder that bicycling on the Leuvensesteenweg is a far greater risk than terrorism is.
I know of people who claim they are reluctant to go to the airport after what happened, but who think nothing of driving after a few beers. These people pose a far greater threat to themselves and innocent victims than do terrorists.
How many people do you know who have been killed in car accidents? How many do you know who have been killed in terrorist attacks? You are far more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist bombing.
The aim of terrorism is to terrorise. They want you to be afraid. Don't be.
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