Can Europe Make It?

The other of the others am I: risk and alterity in the Brussels attacks

An excess of security may not only increase paranoia, but can also make the ‘otherness’ much harder.  Português, Nederlands, Español

Lucas Melgaço
26 March 2016

Entrance of Maelbeek/Maalbeek metro station after March 2016 Brussels attacks. Wikicommons/Zinneke. Some rights reservedI am a Brazilian scholar who’s been living in Brussels for almost four years. My experience on March 22 is likely to be similar to that of many other Brussels inhabitants. I received the news about the first blast at the airport early in the morning. Minutes later I learned about the bomb in Maelbeek, a metro station close to where I live and part of a line that I use regularly.

My first reaction was of shock and worry about the possibility of someone close to me being amongst the victims. Through social networks, mainly Facebook and Whatsapp, I managed to contact my closest friends and relatives, which was comforting. Throughout the day I received many messages from friends and family in Brazil, but also from many acquaintances whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time.

They were all worried about my and my partner’s safety. It goes without saying that these signs of solidarity, concern and affection were touching. On the other hand, I was impressed by their reactions because it made me realise that the risk of becoming a victim of an attack seemed much higher to outsiders. One life amongst "us" has more value than 81 lives of the "others" and that seems perfectly normal.

Some simple statistics may help explain my point. So far 32 deaths have been counted in the attacks. The Brussels Region (only residents, excluding the thousands of people who commute to the capital daily) has about 1,140,000 inhabitants. This means that the probability of having been a victim of the attack is about one in 36,000, or 2.8 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. My city in Brazil, Goiânia (a city of a comparable size) had a homicide rate of 43 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015. If we assume that this will be the only terrorist attack in Brussels this year and that the homicide rate in Goiania in 2016 will remain the same, we can say that the chances of a resident of my beloved hometown being murdered are fifteen times higher than those of a Brussels resident dying in a terrorist attack. By which I obviously don’t mean to imply that the fear and media impact caused by homicides and terrorist attacks are directly comparable.

Also, I don’t want to say that we should compare lives the way we compare apples. I made this mistake myself after the attacks in Paris last November. Despite having lived there for 3 years and feeling a strong connection with the city of light, I felt outraged by the selective media coverage of the attack, both traditional and social. 

Much attention was given to the death toll from the attack but hardly a word was uttered about other terrorist attacks that took place that same year in Mali and Kenya for example. Many of you might even be asking yourselves: which attacks? Kenya? We can also mention another example as recent as last week to highlight the same selectivity. More than 30 people were killed by a bomb explosion in one of the main shopping streets in Istanbul and the attack received not even one tenth of the media attention given to the Brussels incident. As the geographer Milton Santos claimed in his book The space of the citizen: "Each man is valued according to where he is."

In general, however human we are, we feel the loss of our loved ones far deeper than the death of a stranger. There are several possible reasons for the fact that we care more about the lives of those we regard as "ours" than those we label as the "others", but I won’t go into that discussion in this text. Nevertheless I am reminded of the classic 80s film Commando. The film tells the story of retired Colonel John Matrix, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose daughter Jenny is kidnapped by a former companion, to force him to commit a political crime in the fictional country Valverde. The protagonist goes on a saga in search of his daughter and doesn’t spare anyone who crosses his path. He kills a total of 81 people (according to the calculations of the site Movie Body Counts). At no point during the film do we, the spectators, ask ourselves whether such a massacre is acceptable. When Jenny is finally rescued, we feel relief and we think it was worth the carnage. One life amongst "us" has more value than 81 lives of the "others" and that seems perfectly normal. This conflict between "us" and the "others" is clearly visible in recent terrorist attacks. It is also partially the cause of the problem.

This dialectical relationship of otherness, this conflict between "us" and the "others", is clearly visible in the recent terrorist attacks, including those on Tuesday in Brussels. It is also partially the cause of the problem.  Most of the terrorists are much more European than I am. They are Belgian, French, British, born in Europe, but who have never been fully integrated into the category of "us, the Europeans". They are the "others", the Arabs, Africans, the Muslims - and will apparently always be. On the other hand, to them we are the “others” and our lives have the same value as those of the 81 people killed by Colonel Matrix. As the author Clarice Lispector wrote in her book Not to forget: "My greatest experience would be to be the other of the others. And that the other of the others would be me."

The dialectics of otherness as it plays out

It is very likely that some reactions of the Belgian and European authorities will only reinforce the disparity and distance between "us" and "them", by for instance increasing border controls and police checks on young people in neighbourhoods with a strong presence of Arabs and Muslims (such as Molenbeek and Schaerbeek). There may also be an intensification of urban securitization like, for example, security checks already at the entrance of airports. It is indeed remarkable that a bottle of shampoo of more than 100 ml is confiscated at the security checkpoint, but that terrorists manage to easily enter the departures with three suitcases full of explosives. The barrier would have to be moved then, as already the case in Tel-Aviv, to the entrance of the airport. Long waiting lines outside the airport would be the result with people being exposed to new terrorist attacks. The solution? To move the border control even further. Where will it end? It is therefore necessary to avoid hasty measures and show caution in the analyses.

The analogy with the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 in the US is obvious. After the shooting, some US schools decided to install metal detectors at their entrances. In addition to creating long queues and normalizing suspicion and surveillance, this measure exposed students to new risks, as they had to spend more time waiting outside school grounds. It did not take long for principals to realize that such devices were inefficient and that they created new problems. It is therefore necessary to avoid hasty measures and show caution in the analyses, so attacks like the ones in Brussels do not result in xenophobic measures or measures which reinforce fear and paranoia. May the reactions to the Brussels tragedy contribute to the removal of barriers rather than strengthening them.

According to the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, in his book Meditation on the technique, "human life and everything in it is a constant and absolute risk." The acknowledgement that life entails risks should not be understood here as a discouraging, frustrating or paralysing message. On the contrary, we must accept that there are limits to the rationalization and securitization of life, but that, in spite of these risks, life is worth living, and whether we like it or not, that those risks are inherent to human existence. Moreover, an excess of security may not only increase paranoia, but can also make the ‘otherness’ much harder. More distrust and prejudice will only increase the distance between the "others" and "us". May the reactions to the Brussels tragedy contribute to the removal of barriers rather than strengthening them.

This text was originally published in Portuguese on the blog Brasil Debate (brasildebate.com.br) and published in a Dutch translation in the journal De Wereld Morgen. (www.dewereldmorgen.be).

Translated from Portuguese by Hanneke Vanhellemont and Lucas Melgaço.

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