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Brussels Day 2: Mourning & Free Movement

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city long view

A view of the City from Brussels Library Gardens, Mont des Arts, Belgium.

Our trip to Brussels for a geopolitical and security conference (The German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum and side event, The Young Professionals Forum [1] ) has brought my partner and me full circle in the privileged cycle of international travel. We are physically tired and emotionally drained, but we are home when so many others are not. All Eurostar trains from Brussels were suspended following the March 22 terrorist attacks in the city of Brussels. We had enjoyed our time in this European capital, but we were devastated to be delayed, even by one day, amid the violence we were watching on TV and the sirens we were hearing outside.

On the way to the Brussels train station yesterday morning, March 23, we struck up a conversation with our Uber driver. When we asked about his experiences following the terrorist attacks on Tuesday he informed us that he had spent the entire day driving customers from Brussels to Amsterdam and France; yesterday morning he had already driven to Germany before he picked us up in downtown Brussels. We both felt guilty that we were one of the privileged that was able to pay a driver to take us from point A to point B. It’s odd to think of Uber as being available during a terrorist attack…but, as we are fully aware, transportation matters.

When we had passed all the train station security check points and sat down outside the platform, relieved we were about to get on a train home, we were reminded we were just a few of the fortunate ones; a voice came on the loud speaker and asked us to take a minute of silence in honor of Tuesday’s victims. All around us hundreds of people stood up and observed that minute together.

It was hard not to be emotional—for most of us this wasn’t our country, it wasn’t our capital, and it wasn’t our home. We were leaving.

While waiting for our train to London I received a phone call from the gentleman from whom we had been renting an apartment from during our stay. It wasn’t the first time we had spoken since the attacks, but it was the first time we were able to talk calmly. He had been in the Maelbeek Metro Station—where 20 people died—-on his way to work when the bomb went off on Tuesday. He left the station uninjured, went immediately home, and called me to make sure we were okay. Speaking Wednesday, he recounted his story in more detail and expressed concern we hadn’t been able to enjoy our trip. He invited us back numerous times and then said he had to get back to work—the man was back at the office within less than 24 hours of narrowly escaping death on his way to work! Both of us were humbled by his actions.

Once settled on the train we were reminded that actually this incident is “our problem”, so to speak. Our phones were full of bad news: war refugees fleeing the Middle East and international “debates” about what should happen to them, U.S. Presidential candidates taking the opportunity of a terrorist attack to encourage xenophobia, British leaders using this same disaster as a means to justify the potential UK departure from the EU.

Thinking about these circumstances nearly non-stop the past 36 hours, I am still not sure what we should do. My partner, who internalizes, rationalizes, and calmly analyzes has listened as I delivered a ceaseless stream of questions. How do we help others in much worse situations? How do we make our policy leaders aware that hateful rhetoric only makes this and similar situations worse? How can we make sure that people understand Brussels is not a “hell hole” nor is it “disintegrating” and that the city was beautiful before and it will continue to be beautiful after? How do we not get discouraged when this is certainly not the last attack we will see? How do we enjoy our day-to-day life without forgetting that there is a policy issue—and a major humanitarian crisis—that we need to focus on?

How can we start our own family when yesterday, today, and tomorrow so many families will be displaced and forced to live in squalid conditions as a result of conflict?

I don’t know. All I can really focus on at this moment is the amount of travel, transportation, and movement we have experienced with relative ease this last week. The luxury of being able to move across borders is easily taken for granted, and it’s a luxury that many people don’t have.

BF Photo

Brussels Forum Sunday, March 20, Rethinking the Security Paradigm: A Conversation. From left to right: Moderator, Ms. Kim Dozier (CNN & Daily Beast), Ms. Nancy Lindborg (President, United States Institute for Peace), and Dr. Nada Mohammed Ibraheem Al-Jubori (Member, Iraqi Council of Representatives).

Maintaining protected borders is an integral part of national security, but it is equally important to have open borders for migration in times of need. A single, closed-door policy is not the answer to terrorism or the refugee crisis. There are numerous negative examples of the failings of hardline government border and migration policies centered on ethnic and cultural homogeneity, from a variety of different governments. When the stakes are high enough people will find a way to move, regardless of laws or walls. It strikes me that the kindness Belgians showed to foreigners in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attack speaks volumes about the power of inclusiveness and integration, and I believe these are the same values government policy should reflect. There is room for strategic security policy, but it should not be directed at citizens as some world leaders seem to be suggesting.

I hope that someday other couples, partners, parents, and children can experience that same solace we felt today in Brussels, despite the circumstances. We are grateful to the people of that city, and to the Europeans, Americans, and other transatlantic partners who have extended support to everyone affected. I have faith that this same kindness can reach to other places affected by similar attacks, regardless of region, demographic, nationality, or creed.

[1] For more information on both events please see my articles on issues discussed, including the Paris Climate Agreements, Migration Flows & the Refugee Crisis, and Transatlantic Leadership. The original articles were written for the German Marshall Fund and are available here.


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