The incidents at Brussels airport and on the Metro network there this morning ought to serve as a reminder that complete security is unachievable. Having made air-side at airports more challenging to reach, it was only a matter of time for terror attacks to focus on the passenger-side. Those who now talk of the need for better intelligence and even more security seem not to understand this displacement problem.
There can be no security solutions to social problems. But the Belgian PM, Charles Michel, has, like our own PM, David Cameron, sought to legislate his way out of problems in recent times. New laws allowing police raids and opposing hate speech match attempts here that focus more on preventing the assumed inevitable than understanding its social origins and seeking to alter these through political leadership.
Belgium is different to the UK of course, but not that much so. It is divided between a French-speaking South and a Flemish-speaking North. Brussels in particular is also home to two significant international institutions – the EU and NATO – while having unemployment rates in excess of 30% in some districts. Accordingly, its identity is confused and contested, as are its organs of state, and this has led to a vacuum where its values and vision ought to be.
But young people there are the same as the world over. They want to feel that they belong to, and believe in, something. If the mainstream fails to offer this they will look elsewhere. What we see is not so much radicalisation as disengagement. Worse, those who ought to offer a lead, such as teachers, talk of avoiding engaging youth on subjects such as the Holocaust, for fear of causing offence or angering those in their charge.
This mainstream evacuation means that run-down districts, such as Molenbeek, with which several recent incidents – from Charlie Hebdo to the Paris attacks, as well as those on a Thalys train and now these – appear connected, suffer not so much from resentment and presumed grievances, as a lack of ambition and leadership by those in authority. The country from which more people go to join ISIS in Syria as a percentage of the population is now Belgium.
Going forwards, it will only be by addressing the social confusions of the mainstream that a solution will emerge.
Professor Bill Durodié is Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Chair of International Relations at the University. His work focuses on risk, resilience, radicalisation and the politics of fear.
Listen to his inaugural lecture, now available as a podcast, on the politics of risk and resilience.
For any students or staff in Brussels or Belgium, please note this link.