On Saturday, Brussels woke up to a chilly morning, dark skies and cold rain – an almost welcome change from the unusually warm weather of late. It made me long for my favourite layering; it also made the Christmas decorations, already up in some shop windows since mid-November, seem less unseasonable.
But this Saturday, Brussels also woke up to an unprecedented lockdown, following an increase of the terror threat level from 3 (high) to 4 (maximum), as a result of “relatively precise information of a risk of attacks”, according to Prime Minister Michel, and amidst fears of an ”imminent attack”.
The city centre was taken over by the army, the metro service suspended, all sporting events and concerts cancelled, and people warned to exercise caution, avoid public transport, crowded areas and tourist destinations. Shopping malls were evacuated, restaurants and cafes asked to close as a precaution.
So, all unnecessary activities cancelled, I hastened to the grocer’s for the essentials, slightly changing my usual route to avoid ”crowded areas” as far as possible. There was tension and weary smiles – and fear; kept under control, masked under those weary smiles but it was there alright.
Sunday has dawned with the thread level remaining at maximum, to be reassessed during the day. No sweat, the cold weather makes it a perfect day for cocooning. And yet…
While I fully respect the authorities’ decision aiming to protect the population, I can’t help thinking that between mourning the dead and learning to live in fear, even from the relative safety of our home, the underlying tragedy is that the extremists have won the battle. For locking down an entire city may indeed prevent unnecessary bloodshed but it also shakes and shatters one of the core principles of a free society – individual freedom (of movement).
This weekend Brussels has forever lost her innocence, that illusion of safety cheerfully wrapped around delicious chocolate and heavenly smelling waffles. So now that the bubble has burst, can we still hope that sanity will eventually prevail? Is there anything else to do but keep calm and carry on? Has the time come to realise that – inevitably – religion almost always functions as the alibi of fanatics and as long as it is used as a weapon, there will always be all manners of warfare?
I will carry these thoughts tomorrow morning to work, as I go through identity controls on entering the ”high risk” area of the European Quarter.
Meanwhile, I leave you with these rosy images of a sweeter past.
Religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage. – Dennis Potter