Life in Europe After the ISIS Attacks

The terrorists behind the killings in Brussels and Paris want to incite hatred between Europe and Muslims — so far, the EU has done little to counter that strategy

Credit: David Ramos/Getty

On March 22nd , the day of the Brussels attacks, I flew from Berlin to Basel by way of Frankfurt. Perhaps it was too soon after the killings at the Zavantem airport, but at Frankfurt there didn’t seem to be any dramatic shift in airport protocols, nor were the security lines significantly longer. Neither did there seem to be anything out of the ordinary at the Basel airport, where I landed that afternoon. Its official name is EuroAirport, as it serves Basel in Switzerland, Freiburg in Germany and Mulhouse in France, where it is in fact located, so that at exit passport control you can choose to enter any of the three countries. There was no indication at EuroAirport that Europe had just been attacked in Belgium. Nor was there anything in Basel itself—one of the wealthiest cities on the continent—suggesting that just 300 miles away atrocities had been committed: people went quietly about their jewelry shopping or sipped their Nespressos, the impeccable streetcars glided along sunny streets as in heaven.

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A week later, I was in Venice, by which time the hunt for the terrorist who accompanied the two suicide-bomber brothers to Zavantem — ‘the man in the hat’ — was all over the web and front pages. Nevertheless, the tourists amassed in Piazza San Marco to extend their selfie sticks and validate their presence in that jewel of European civilization, unconcerned by the fact that such crowds are a suicide bomber’s dream. People, of course, will always go on with their lives until they can’t, but it seemed to me that in Venice, as in Basel, the Europe that was attacked existed elsewhere, and mainly as a fragile idea.

The alacrity with which the real targets of attacks in Brussels were identified as “values” only served to underscore that sense. Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, was quick to say that “the terrorist attacks targeted European values.” While, in her statement after the attacks, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel spotted the perpetrators as “enemies of all the values for which Europe stands today, and which we as members of European Union believe in.”

The talk of “values” distracts from the fact that terrorist violence is not random savagery, but a clear and determined strategy. The ultimate ISIS goal is a hatred between Europe and Muslims (who they claim to represent) so intense and sealed in blood as to become irreparable, resulting in an essential segregation between “us” and “them.” They hope that the consequent racism and anti-Muslim policies will drive more people in their direction; they hope for more enraged recruits. What ISIS is gunning for is a Europe without fence-sitters, a battlefield where “we” fight “them” to a bitter end, using all the weapons and values “we” can summon.

The consequences of the Brussels attacks, as well as those before them, are two-pronged. On the one hand, it was safe to assume that the voices of Euro values would hit high pitches. In no time did the Belgian Parliament come up with a law requiring newly arrived immigrants to sign a statement upholding “our” values. The neo-Nazis randomly attacking immigrants in Brussels and elsewhere are not required, however, to sign such statements, since marauding self-uniformed mobs are presumably an age-old part of the European value system.

On the other hand, the terrorist attacks fortify the long and living European tradition of exclusion of non-European peoples. The Europeans are perfectly capable of ignoring atrocities taking place just down the road or refugees drowning off the coast of popular vacation spots. The instinct is to build fences (presently being raised in Hungary and Macedonia), and withdraw into the safety of familiar locality, of cultured regional traditions and cuisine, of well-rehearsed intellectual exchanges among the national elite, of everyone just taking care of themselves by keeping the strangers out — becoming, in another words, Switzerland, which is not an EU member. The terrorists hope that behind the barbed wire of “values” internal fracturing will take place.

The whole European arrangement is precarious — it depends on harmony at the top, but also on everyone below pulling their weight, not least in terms of security policies and procedures. If Europe is to be sustained as a political, or historical, project, some kind of change is necessary, and the direction ought to be toward transformative inclusion, and not toward exclusion for the sake of essentialist, ahistorical Europeanness. Banging on the drum of “values” does little other than fit snugly into ISIS’s absolute, apocalyptic value system, propped on the pillars of “us” and “them.”