March 22, 2016
By George van Bergen, Deputy Director, AJC's Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute
I woke up to the news of a terrible bomb attack at the Brussels airport. Today, of all days, AJC CEO David Harris was scheduled to visit the city for a busy program of high-level talks with Belgian and EU authorities. It seemed a good idea to walk to the office so I could keep up with the news and communicate with my boss Daniel Schwammenthal, director of AJC’s Transatlantic Institute (TAI), who would accompany David on his meetings.
So skipping my usual subway ride on the number 1 line, I walked briskly past the EU Council building, listening to the Belgian radio’s news updates and texting Daniel to make sure he would be informed in real time about what was going on. I heard a lot of sirens and saw police, army personnel, and unmarked cars speeding by. Nervousness in the EU’s capital district was certainly to be expected, but the atmosphere was filled with noticeable tension, and I wondered if I was imagining things. Suddenly, I heard a loud bang down the Rue de la Loi, the central thoroughfare of Brussels’ EU District. Smoke came bellowing up the narrow and traffic-congested street, closed in between the facades of opposing rows of office buildings.
Like a herd of cattle startled by a sudden noise, everyone looked in the same direction, perhaps wondering, as I did, if this was something more than a minor car accident, or a bad joke from a prankster with a firecracker. But as I came closer to the origin of the noise and noticed how the grey smoke smelled of gunpowder, I clearly saw it emanate from the exit of the Maalbeek subway station across the street from me—the very station I had gotten off every morning around this time for the last year and a half since I started working at TAI. Had I not decided to walk, I would have taken the train there this morning, and might well have been in the station at that very moment.
I saw what appeared to be an injured person lying on the sidewalk outside the exit of Maalbeek station, a green metal trashcan next to him, and two people hugging each other, seemingly ignoring the wounded man on the ground, blood on his face, his pants torn to shreds, and his arm stretched upward as if begging them to help. Perhaps we all fell victim to the effect known as “Oh no”—you see the attack but your mind doesn’t allow you to believe it’s real.
I was still in denial when I took out my cellphone and called Daniel to tell him what I had seen, as the sirens became even louder with the approach of first responders. And I remembered the chat I had at the dinner table yesterday with my wife and two daughters about the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow, Sliding Doors, about how a split second can change a lifetime.
This seems to be the new normal in Brussels, Paris, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or indeed anywhere. People who want only to go about their business can be struck down by violent lunatics who feel the need to make a statement in blood. In this case little analysis is necessary to suspect a link with the arrest only days ago of the Abdeslam, a plotter of the November 13th Paris bomb attack. Islamic State has by now indeed claimed responsibility for this atrocity, and with it proves again, as we have been saying for many years now, that radical Islamic terrorism may start with Jews in Toulouse or Tel Aviv, but it won’t stop there—it will threaten Western civilization as a whole. The clash between the West and IS is really only getting started, and I am afraid we will witness much more such carnage.
As I write, the death toll of what now appears to have been suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and subway stations stands at 34, with over 100 more injured. The city is in lockdown. The police have discovered an unexploded bomb belt at the airport, and say that this may mean that another terrorist is still on the loose. It will likely be a long and strange day.
Let’s be grateful that we will probably be among those who will see it end tonight. May it steel our resolve to not let the terrorists get us to change our way of life, and to keep on defending what is right.