Clare G Richardson-Barlow

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Brussels Day 2: Mourning & Free Movement

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.

A Day in Brussels: March 22, 2016

This post is a joint effort between me and my partner William J. Schaffer, a finance and strategy professional focused on the Aerospace, Defense and Government Services (ADG) sector.

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A Brussels city view from the New Hotel Brussels, which hosted a portion of the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professionals Summit.

Today has been an unexpectedly fortunate day. The two of us, husband and wife, have been temporarily kept from departing Brussels following today’s IS terrorist attacks on the Brussels International Airport and the Maelbeek Metro Station. It has not escaped our attention that this is not the only attack in the last week, or the only incident of extremist violence this year. We are privileged to be safe and in Brussels another day, as the city has been so kind to us for the past week, and we are happy to have another day together. There is nowhere we would rather be.

The event that brought us to Brussels in the first place was the Young Professional’s Summit, a side event of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum. The Forum is an international meeting of political, academic, and corporate leaders from both sides of the Atlantic, focused on addressing the shared challenges of the transatlantic community and the responses required for continued global stability and peace. While a variety of security, economic, and political concerns were addressed throughout the dual conferences, dialogue was often brought back to the pressing refugee crisis in Europe and the threat of terrorism and conflict that has spurred it. It has been extremely difficult for the two of us not to ponder on the irony of attending a high-level conference where the topic du jour was the refugee crisis and Middle Eastern conflict that led to it, followed by what many viewed as the successful capture of Salah Abdeslam on Friday, only to witness a more somber Brussels today. Strategic and innovative security solutions were discussed at the Forum, and today we were reminded that they are part of the vital changes that must happen among transatlantic partners.

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The Royal Palace of Brussels.

For the past 12 hours we have been glued to our Facebook newsfeed, Twitter, and Google news updates. While the images from the airport and metro station a few miles away have been terrifying, the scariest news has been the policy responses proposed by U.S. Presidential Candidates back home. It is our belief, as security and economic policy analysts, that it is the current political and security systems imperative to prevent the prejudicial, protectionist, and reactionary government policies we have seen encouraged across the transatlantic community, both today and in the past several years. This imperative is increasingly apparent as acts of terrorism and violence increase and more and more people are displaced from these acts.

Homegrown terrorism from communities with disenfranchised young populations who have little stake in existing societal formations have a history of presenting security threats to existing political structure. This is a challenge faced by democratic and authoritarian governments alike. However, the ability of excluded and disenfranchised to connect globally, disseminate ideologies, and spread misinformation is unprecedented in human history. Regardless of group, grievance, or region there is a deep-seated need to secure public spaces and critical infrastructure, lest their vulnerability give weight to societal responses far more damaging than most acts of violence.

Grand Place

The Grand Place in Brussels, a central square in the city.

Social media, smart phones and increased Internet access have provided lone wolves the opportunity to quickly form packs and further radicalize. Self-inspired or remotely recruited individuals and small groups are able to operate independently and deliver significant damage at low cost, representing one of the core security threats of the 21st Century.

To counter this threat the private and public sectors of the transatlantic security community will need to collaboratively build more agile, adaptive capabilities able to efficiently identify, monitor, and deter purveyors and practitioners of violence via video surveillance, signals communications, and data analytics. Capable technology solutions are critical to providing viable alternatives to the xenophobic, closed border policies that prevent successful integration, creating greater, systemic security concerns.

The current transatlantic defense and security industry remains organized around core defense infrastructures and requirements-based procurement. Although certainly evolving, this system was designed to deter State sponsored aggression; it  is ill equipped to quickly develop and implement the solutions needed to reliably prevent violence from non-state aggressors. The string of attacks in Brussels, Paris, Ankara and San Bernardino California points directly to this need.

This is an immense task, but advances in sensors technology and data science are allowing innovative companies to create the real-time security solutions needed to better combat the rapidly evolving, threat of modern-day terrorism. Haystax Technology, Palantir and Digital Barriers are both excellent examples of companies presently delivering these types of solutions. With time, a next generation of technology solutions should not only empower governments to protect the public at the national and local levels but help finance, IT, utilities and other private service providers to affordably police themselves and share information.

Being in Brussels today amid the unfolding crisis we have been reminded of something it is easy to forget in the West: we are fortunate beyond belief. Tomorrow we will get on a train and go home; a home that is not surrounded by the same conflict, suffering, and inequality that is driving people across the Middle East into Europe by any means necessary. We are not in an emotional or physical place where we need to migrate for the safety of our family unit, and we pray that we never will be. However, as responsible voters, informed employees in the global policy community, and kind partners, friends, and neighbors, we must take a stand for those that do not have the same benefits, and we must encourage the adaptation of government policies that will responsibly address and prevent similar crises in the future. A strong balance of tangible security solutions and inclusive policy responses are cornerstones of creating sustained global stability.