Many locals are trying to maintain a so-called "belgitude" after last week's deadly terror. But the city's vulnerability is on full display.
BRUSSELS — It's strange to watch how much international solidarity a country is met with when tragedy strikes, even if the beleaguered country has been criticized and held responsible for the very forces that have caused the hardship. Brave little Belgium is back on the world's radar, it seems.
The international support represents a sort of vindication. There's little blame still being directed toward Belgium — its government, its leadership — now that we see the cynical ways that senseless violence destroys any democratic debate. Meanwhile, we repeat like a mantra our mea culpa concerning failed integration of even second-generation immigrants, and it's still not enough. But there are young creative people who are setting an example in the troubled neighborhood of Molenbeek about how to live together peacefully despite cultural differences.
There are circles in Brussels where idealism and a strong will to overcome these differences reign. There's a lot of positive energy in this country. But there are also people here who are capable of committing the cruelest of crimes. And that's the true "clash," in which open minds meet closed ones.
Some of us are left speechless. Others play the "I-told-you-so" game. The problem is that there's no escaping terror as long as hatred is still being fostered by macho politicians, barbaric international wars, aerial bombardment, border conflicts, religious extremism and an overdose of adrenalin. In the name of pain, we need to realize that our characteristic vulnerability is based on moral values: those of a complex, open society.
Receiving international respect and solidarity is ultimately small comfort, and Brussels finds itself collectively perplexed. It's a city that has always embraced non-conformity, one that has worn its cultural diversity proudly like a flag, but now it's paying the price for it. After the attacks, a Facebook image made the rounds showing a hand made out of French fries and giving the middle finger. This typical "belgitude," the capacity of locals to offer unique expressions with some degree of humor, can be a blessing, but there is ultimately nothing to laugh about right now.
Just the other day I'd sent a text message to my son, who attends university in Brussels: Don't take the subway, I wrote. Shortly afterward, the nightmare of the attacks struck. This country must stand strong. This strange, unique and wounded city must soldier on. No matter what. But there is profound sadness in the conclusion that openness can turn against itself, confirmed by the gutlessness of the enemies of our democracy.
*Stefan Hertmans is a novelist who lives near Brussels.