Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Responding to the Brussels attacks: how to get it wrong

It’s Brussels this time. At least another 31 deaths and over 200 injured. Harrowing, dismal events, and the latest in a series of them.

The scene at Zaventem airport, Brussels, soon after the explosion
That’s bad enough, but then it gets worse. As usual, our own reaction will magnify the damage and give the terrorists a victory they’ve done nothing to merit.

The Belgian government, for instance, will go way over the top with security measures, making life much safer but far less convenient. People will have to leave earlier to get to work on time, earlier to catch a plane. So as well as the tragedy inflicted on the families immediately involved, the terrorists will leave a lasting mark on the economy of a major European capital, making it more difficult to run.

The British government has added to the mix by advising against travel to Brussels. I have no particular reason to go to Brussels at the moment, but fear of terrorism wouldn’t stop me: the place is going to be one of the safest on earth for the new few weeks or months. Just a pig to get around.

In any case, it would be nonsense to fear Brussels, since I commute into London. That city has to be facing a risk of terrorism at least as high as at any time since the IRA campaign of the eighties. But I still feel I’m much more likely to be involved in a traffic accident than caught up in a terrorist outrage; since I’m not going to stop crossing roads or driving a car, it makes no sense avoiding London.

Besides, refusing to be deflected denies the terrorists an easy win.

There are other, still more vital ways, of denying them. One of the most important is to resist the urge to bomb them out of existence. It was that kind of thinking that got us into our difficulties in the first place: an illegitimate, unnecessary war in Iraq spawned ISIS. The Syrian civil war has become a proxy for East-West clashes as well as tensions inside the Middle East, that are wreaking havoc in Libya and Yemen too. We’ve brutalised a great many young men, and not a few young women, and given them something to avenge.

Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy on the Syria crisis, told the Guardian that, following the Brussels attacks:

The message we are drawing out is that we need to end the fires of war. We need to find a political solution in Syria to make sure we can all concentrate on what is the real danger, in the world and in Syria.

Take away the underlying conflict, and you take away its expression in other countries – in Turkey, which suffers more often than most, but also in Europe.

Going a step further, we also have to resist the temptation to blame the outrages on Islam or Molenbeek, the district of Brussels from which the attacks against both Brussels and Paris came. Donald Trump is naturally attacking immigration itself as the source of such terrorism, trying to blame entire populations for the work of a handful of people; in Britain, the far-right UKIP attacks open borders in Europe, ignoring the fact that Salah Abdeslam, who led on the logistics of the Paris attack, was stopped at the Hungarian-Austrian border in September 2015, but was allowed to drive on. The failure wasn’t due to the Schengen groups open borders but to lousy intelligence.

Stigmatising a European Muslim population of several million for the actions of a tiny minority simply creates more enemies for us; targeting Molenbeek would be just as counter-productive, since what makes the district generate aggression so easily is precisely that it’s so poorly assimilated. 30% are out of work. One in three of the population is foreign. Increasing its pain will do no one any good.

The IRA campaign in Northern Ireland was waged by a few hundred activists. Behind them, however, there were probably many thousands of passive supporters who provided the active members with information and shelter as necessary.

Eventually, once Westminster had woken up to a more intelligent approach to the province than military repression, huge sums were invested into Northern Ireland to revive the economy. A long campaign led to reasonably fair access to jobs, housing and education for Protestants and Catholics. The effect was to drain the swamp that gave the activists their support.

At the same time, intense and highly competent intelligence work enabled the security services to break up IRA groups and thwart attacks. After all, if the IRA had to depend on many thousands, it was impossible not to have leaks to the police, and good intelligence took advantage of them.

It’s clear, if only from the fact that Abdeslam escaped arrest in Molenbeek for several months, that there’s an extensive passive support network there too. Again, there must have been leaks. But were the security forces set up to take advantage of them? Belgium is, for instance, coming to terms with the fact that the police force has far too few Arabic speakers.

Whatever Trump may say, Molenbeek doesn’t demonstrate a failure of the Community, merely a failure of Community policing.

Will we be smart enough to apply the lessons of Northern Ireland elsewhere in Europe? To respond to the latest attacks not with increased repression but with investment and highly-competent intelligence work? To help all our sad little Molenbeeks, across the continent, out of their misery rather than drive them deeper into it?

Which boils down to one simple question: will we avoid giving the terrorists yet another undeserved victory?

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