The world will once again be united in the wake of another terrorist attack on a major European city. Reports of explosions at Brussels Airport began shortly after 8 a.m., and reports of an explosion on Brussels’ metro system have followed. These attacks come only four days after Salah Abdeslam was arrested in Brussels for the role he is suspected of playing in the Paris terror attacks. The combination of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, the Paris attacks in November 2015, the New Year’s assaults in Cologne, and today’s attacks in Brussels will, undoubtedly, force change in Europe.
In January 2015, armed terrorists entered the headquarters of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, where they shot 22 people, 11 of whom were killed. The following day, they entered a kosher food market in Paris’ 12th arrondissement, where four of those taken hostage died. In total, five attacks occurred over a three-day period, and 17 innocent individuals lost their lives. The Charlie Hebdo shootings united people around the world, and “Je Suis Charlie” became a declaration of global support for the French victims. Throughout Europe, those words continue to show support for expressive freedom, as seen in the photograph below, taken in Budapest’s Svabadság Square in October.
As tragic as the Charlie Hebdo shootings were, those of us in Europe found a level of comfort in the fact that the attacks were targeted. It was understood that terrorists chose Charlie Hebdo because of its anti-Islamist propaganda, and the attack on the kosher supermarket felt like an attack on Jews carried out by Arabs, an idea that is not new, considering the history of violence between the two groups. The average European, though shocked, saddened, and angered, could separate him or herself from these attacks and hold onto a sense of security.
For the next 10 months, Europe was relatively quiet. On the evening of November 13, my husband and I sat down to make reservations for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve dinners in Paris. After narrowing down our choices, we sent our reservation requests to the various establishments and headed to bed. Before we had time to brush our teeth, news of the attack at the Stade de France and the other attacks around Paris hit the airwaves. With sleep forgotten, we headed back downstairs and watched the tragedy unfold.
On that night, which no European will ever forget, 130 people lost their lives in the City of Light, while another 368 suffered injuries. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo attacks, these attacks on Paris were arbitrary. The terrorists were no longer targeting specific groups, instead they were targeting the very heart of Europe itself. Anyone could have been a victim of these attacks, and that knowledge left all Europeans very afraid and very angry.
For us, the thought of traveling to Paris a little more than a month later was, at that moment, terrifying. However, as time passed, we, like millions of others, resolved to not let the terrorists win. On December 22, we flew to Paris. It was not until the next day that we saw, firsthand, how the attacks had failed to change the hearts of the French and, especially, the hearts of the Parisians.
Although soldiers were on the streets and at every monument and tourist attraction, the Parisians were back in their cafés. The heart of Paris was still beating, and it was very evident that no terrorist attacks could stop it.
Paris, like a phoenix risen from the ashes, was a kinder place than it had been before the attacks. The Parisians seemed to feel a love for their fellow man in a capacity greater than outsiders had previously believed possible. Even though Paris’ inhabitants appeared stronger than ever, evidence of both attacks was still present, serving as reminders of the past and as warnings of the possibility of future tragedies.
On Christmas Day, we were strolling through the Pére Lachaise cemetery, when we saw the resting place of Bernard Verlhac, better known as “Tignous.” He was a talented cartoonist and a victim of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. At that moment, reality hit, the attacks became very real, and I shed my first tears over the events of the past year.
As our time in Paris continued, we saw the resolve of the Parisians, but we also saw how the attacks had changed Europe and Europeans − and us. A new wariness was present, especially in communities with large Arab populations, like Paris’ Saint-Denis. After a trip to the suburb’s famous basilica, it was a relief to return to the center of Paris.
On New Year’s Day, we, along with the rest of the world, awoke to the news of the gang assaults on women in Cologne. These attacks, perpetrated by men who were believed to refugees, increased the wariness all Europeans were already feeling. In addition, the incidents in Cologne, along with the other incidents that came to light afterward, left us with feelings of impotence. How could anyone, man or woman, resist an attack by such a large number?
In late January, reports surfaced in newspapers like the Daily Mail claiming Harald Neymanns, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, admitted the German government cannot account for the whereabouts of hundreds of thousands of refugees. This news, as it made its way through the right-wing press only weeks after the attacks in Cologne and Hamburg, left an impression on the European psyche, regardless of its validity.
Today’s attacks in Brussels, reported by CBS News as resulting in the deaths of at least 13 people and injuries to dozens of others, will only increase the wariness and fear already felt by most Europeans. Additionally, today’s attacks will also increase the antipathy many Europeans feel toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening the floodgates to millions of refugees, many of whom average Europeans believe to be not refugees, but terrorists.
As the details of today’s tragedy emerge, it is being suggested that the attacks in Brussels are related to the November attacks in Paris and may be the work of the same terrorist cell. Until we know more about the suicide bomber who set off the explosives in the airport and the source of the explosions in the Brussels metro, we are unable to determine whether the attacks in Brussels are home-grown terror or terror resulting from the influx of refugees. For the average European, perhaps it does not even matter.
Europeans are tired of being targets, and change will soon have to come to Europe because the people will demand it. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether European leaders will listen to those they represent. Hopefully, they will follow the lead of French President Francois Hollande, who has just shut the border between France and Belgium as a result of the attacks and take the steps necessary to protect their people.
[Photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Images]