PARIS — If a beginning screenwriter were to offer producers a film including the series of events that rocked Brussels on Tuesday, it would have been rejected as being banal, predictable.
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And indeed, beyond the outrage of randomly killing civilians, to which one cannot and must not ever get used to, everything was so predictable in the events of Tuesday morning in Brussels. The timing was predictable — just days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the only “survivor” of the suicide attacks in Paris. The targets were predictable — mass transportation centers in the morning. The modus operandi was predictable — suicide terrorists in a number of places, including a bomb to kill those fleeing.
ISIS’s apocalyptic announcement taking responsibility for the attacks and promising “black days” was predictable. The delayed response of Belgian security forces, who went on another arrest operation Tuesday night, was predictable. And, of course, the requisite reactions of condemnation and solidarity were predictable, including what has become the West’s standard operating procedure after terror attacks — lighting up monuments in the color of the national flag of the country whose turn it is to be the victim.
However, the sight of the Eiffel Tower colored in red, black and yellow Tuesday evening makes more and more Europeans wonder if their leaders have even a shred of a solution to the present terror wave washing across the continent. The European Union, which is faltering politically and economically even without the challenge that Islamist terror poses, is struggling to formulate an answer to recent bloody events.
Thus, the choice by ISIS to hit the EU capital is both expected and troubling at the same time. ISIS of course is exploiting opportunities, but it is also carefully attaching a sick symbolism to its acts of murder. The fact that it managed to silence the capital of the ambitious project that arose from the ashes of Europe after the Second World War is a significant success for its leaders.
The EU embodies the promise of growth without wars and bloodshed, and here it finds itself in the heart of a war on its land. Belgium was chosen to be the capital of the European project because, among other things, it was perceived as nationally “disadvantaged.” Belgian identity is composed of the Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons who clash with each other and thus could, at least theoretically, take on an additional, pan-European identity that was supposed to pave the way to internal and transcontinental reconciliation.
The paradox is that Tuesday’s attacks, like those in Paris last November, were aimed exactly against the components of European identity that Europe tried to blur, chiefly among them the Christian religion and the colonialist past. Europe in general and Belgium in particular had thought that the new post-religious, post-ethnic age had arrived, in which the question of origin bears almost no importance, in which Greek and Dutch, German and French are all the same whether they are born in Berlin or Paris, Tunis or Ankara.
And now EU states have to urgently find an answer to the security, societal and political challenge aiming to set it back decades and centuries. However, the mostly sincere but so monotonous reactions by leaders across the continent give rise to a harsh feeling of déjà vu and particularly of helplessness. Two hundred years ago one of the leaders who tried (in his own way) to unify the continent, the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte, was defeated on Belgian soil not far from Brussels. It is hard not to ask if the attacks of March 22 are an additional defeat to the noble idea of European unity, which has been blown up over and over on the beaches of political, economic and now security realities.