Brussels, Post Script to Terror

The Grand Place, Brussels

The Grand Place, Brussels

Two weeks ago, the unthinkable happened. Perhaps unthinkable isn’t the right word. Most of us who lived in Brussels believed that an attack was inevitable. The city was on lockdown last November under the threat of imminent terror attack.

Click here for my post on those events:  Brussels Terror Alert, November 2015

Unspeakable isn’t a good word either. The sad truth is, in our modern world, the indiscriminate killing of innocents is no longer unimaginable, unbelievable, unexpected or unusual. In the weeks surrounding the March 22 twin attacks in Brussels, terrorists unleashed their deadly brand of hatred in Turkey, The Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Iraq. Though no less tragic or worthy of our concern, these other places didn’t stir Jim’s and my emotions as much as the news from Brussels. Empathy may be universal, but grief is very personal.

Tuesday, March 22, Jim made the mistake of glancing at his phone in the middle of the night. I awoke shortly thereafter and asked him what was wrong. “Bombs in Brussels,” he said, his tone grave. Neither of us could fall back asleep. Even though we moved back to Chicago three months ago, Brussels still claims a big piece of our hearts. The city was our home for two wonderful years. It still feels like home, perhaps it always will. With the terrible news, our thoughts flew to our friends. The airport and a metro stop on the line that serves the EU were the terrorists’ targets.  Many of our friends work for the EU and as expats, they travel through Zaventem Airport on a regular basis. For Jim and me, the news was personal. We often passed through the Maelbeek Metro stop. And as frequent flyers, we checked in many times at the shattered airport desks shown in news clips, situated across from the Starbucks.

We monitored the social media accounts of our Brussels-based friends to ensure they were safe.  Then came a Facebook notification, “Todd N Jim Arkenberg are marked safe”. I felt a surge of shock. Then I recalled that we hadn’t changed our official Facebook location from Brussels to Chicago.  Someone who knew that we’d moved back to Chicago had seen our name and marked us as safe. For that fleeting moment, I felt a kinship with our friends who still live there. Throughout the morning, seeing friends “mark themselves as safe” gave me great comfort.

The news hit us hard. Tragedy has many layers: disbelief, sadness, worry, anger. As the day began in Chicago, many friends here in the states and around the world reached out to us. For them, we were familiar proxies for the residents of Brussels. We were grateful that so many people were thinking about us, and praying for the safety of our friends. Many of those who contacted us expressed relief that Jim and I were living back in Chicago. They guessed we were also much relieved. And we were. Happy to be safe and in our home. But as odd as it sounds, part of me wished we were still in Brussels. To be among our friends, to show that we weren’t afraid of the cowardly actions of a small band of thugs, to show solidarity with our adopted city, and maybe even to be worthy of being, “marked safe”.

In the two weeks following the bombings, the news has been bleak. More plots are suspected, conspirators arrested, and weapons caches found. Most heartbreaking are the release of victims’ names and their stories. Simple, ordinary people. And though we have yet to fully absorb this tragedy, experts warn of the likelihood of more attacks—more innocent victims. Unthinkable no longer.

And only a few days ago, the US Embassy in Brussels sent out its latest warning. Jim and I are still on that list too. As with past notices, this one reminded Americans of the heightened security level: Americans should be vigilant, avoid large crowds. However, this notice had more. An ominous warning to avoid routines, vary routes to work and shopping. And the biggest shocker? The Embassy advised those with cars, especially those parked on the street, to check the car, ostensibly for bombs.

U.S. Embassy Brussels
Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Maintain Heightened Sense of Awareness

April 1, 2016

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of March 22, Belgium remains under a Level 3 terrorism threat rating (“possible” or “probable” attack). This threat rating means that the Belgian authorities still believe that terrorists either could be in Belgium or are planning an attack here, although the U.S. Embassy has no information indicating a specific threat against Americans or American facilities per se. Nonetheless, the U.S. Embassy strongly urges U.S. citizens to continue to maintain a heightened sense of awareness, and to continue to avoid large crowds or areas that might attract a substantial gathering of people.

Additionally, several other simple security processes can also help mitigate risk as you go about your day.

Keep your cell phone with you at all times. If you see something you deem suspect or someone acting suspiciously, report it immediately to the nearest police officer or soldier. Know the exact location and phone number of the closest police station in your neighborhood.

When possible, vary your route to work or school or to shopping. Rather than taking the same route each day, you should have two or three deviations you can randomly choose from. The entire route need not be different, but even minor deviations can be beneficial. Also, leave from work or school at different times.

Searching your automobile each morning, especially if you park outside, is also an important safety step. Start with a 360 degree sweep, looking around and under the vehicle. Be alert for anything suspicious, such as wire, tape or string. Be systematic — start and finish your search at a predetermined point. Look for any out-of-place packages or items in, on, attached or under the vehicle, and/or tool marks on the vehicle or other indications of forced entry.

They  never mentioned a car search before that I can recall. That’s the kind of sinister stuff that’s supposed to happen only in third world countries or spy thrillers, not in the heart of Europe, the capital of the EU. Unimaginable no longer.

In spite of the attacks, Jim and I look forward to a return visit to our former home in the near future. For despite its many faults, Brussels is a city that deserves to be enjoyed, lived in, strolled around, admired.

Brussels Flowers, Le Petit Sablon

Brussels Flowers, Le Petit Sablon