March 11, the day of the Madrid train attacks of 2004 marks the European Day in Remembrance of Victims of Terrorism. The day aims at shedding light on those who had to experience the fatal consequences of violent extremism first-hand – survivors of terror attacks or those who have lost relatives. Whilst the inclusion of these voices around countering violent extremism is of the essence, so is the acknowledgment of their suffering and the opportunity for the affected to define their own role in the discourse.
Those who experienced physical harm induced by violent extremism, those who lost a relative never had the choice to just move on. The victims of right-wing, of Islamist terror deserve our attention throughout the entire year, as European societies too often choose to move on by upholding a sense of normality. This solidarity should mean a build-up of political resilience, it most certainly does not end with a speech or a symbolic act.
It means training law enforcement, in order to avoid the shocking treatment of the Hanau victims after the attacks from happening ever again. It means the facilitation of a constructive debate around terrorism that leaves no room for political extremism.
On March 22nd in 2016, two terrorist attacks took place in Brussels: 32 people were killed and hundreds injured in coordinated suicide bombings on the metro and at Zaventem airport. I remember standing in the main hall of Brussels airport, shortly after it was reopened in 2016. During my time as EUJS President I used to come here two to three times a week. This time I had to show my passport 16 times as I passed dozens of security checks. The stressed shouting voices would only become background noises, when the thousands and thousands of messages of solidarity spread all over what was remaining of the airport’s main hall visually confronted me with the understanding that our city became the target of barbaric violence. I teared up for a second. These days would forever shape the city’s life. Squads of heavy armed soldiers have ever since been patrolling through the European quarter, would sometimes stand next to you at the subway. They would somehow remind me of a constant threat, rather than giving a feeling of security.
When I landed in the US ten hours later, I was asked to address Park Avenue synagogue on how the city was coping with the attacks. I said that for the Jewish community nothing had changed, as we were in this state ever since the attack on the Jewish museum of 2014 and long before. I then spoke about the lockdown of 2015 in Brussels, resulting from high alert levels of terrorist threat in the city.
Spending a week in lockdown, understanding that our organisation, that we as individuals had become potential targets in 2015, was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. Whilst the entire city couldn’t leave their houses because of this terrorist threat, life had just gone on as if nothing happened when it was over. Twitter was swamped with funny lockdown memes, which seemed like a form of resistance through humor. Were we collectively building resilience by trying to move on or did we try to act as if nothing had happened?
Without any preparation I started enlisting major terror attacks in Europe dating back to Madrid in 2004. My New York audience seemed to be aware of single incidences, yet these events wouldn’t often appear in the same sentence. The argument was simple: Europe’s days without terrorist violence are long over, it’s just that there has never been a public consensus to jointly address the phenomenon in public life. Instead of forming a constructive debate with a victim-focused approach, the topic was to be avoided. The rush to go back to normal as soon as possible is – at first – an act of resistance, a coping mechanism, but in the long run it compromises collective acknowledgment that is not extremist itself. Resilience is built through confrontation, not avoidance.
March 11th is a Remembrance day with little to no significance in our public debate – and yet it should serve as a platform for public grievance, for debate, for building resilience that is the product of an active consensus. In all of Europe I have not been able to identify an event like Hillel Deutschland’s “Festival of Resilience”, which brings together victims and relatives from Germany’s decades-long series of right-wing terror attacks, to form their own commemoration narratives. We are quick to rightfully show our solidarity with the victims of Hanau, Halle, the Breitscheid Platz etc. But listening to them would imply to start acting on the notion that this will happen again and in the end of the day nothing but luck and identity determine how directly we are affected next time. In Israel, Yom HaSikaron serves such a purpose – here the entire country stands still to commemorate the victims of terrorist violence.
Maybe the presence of this debate in public in fact is a good indicator to which extent Europe acknowledges its own political realities. Ultimately violent extremism first and foremost tries to destabilise democratic structures and rejecting this notion is a fire accelerant for the political extreme.
Brussels airport fully reopened months later. Few tourists passing through will understand what it meant, when the entire city covered its walls with their messages of grievance and solidarity. It’s the city’s gate to the world, where calming holiday experiences take off and yet it’s the place where innocent people lost their lives. May there never be a reason to cover these walls again, but we owe the families of the 32 who were killed and the 300 who were injured the promise that we won’t continue as if nothing happened. We owe them a collective response that didn’t end with the reappearance of large commercials in the terminal’s main hall. For there are ways to uphold a sense of normality in everyday life without fear that is not built on ignorance or at least one that holds the infrastructure to properly take care of the ones who will never be able to think of holidays when boarding a plane in Brussels.
I stand in solidarity with all those who lost relatives, with those suffering trauma and I remember the victims of terror throughout the continent.
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Hicham, DialoguePerspectives participant