As I heard the news about the Brussels chaotic situation on the 22nd of March, I felt a mixture of dread with disappointment. Something like: “I had figured this would happen eventually, but I wish it hadn’t.”
Still, it was very impressive for me to see the events unfold. If you’re not completely aware of what happened, let me give you a journalistic insight: On the 22nd of March, 2016, an event at the Zaventem airport (the most important in Belgium) unchained a set of events that not only disturbed, but traumatized the whole country. At around 8 am., two suicidal individuals exploded the departure terminal of the airport. A few minutes later, another explosion happened in a metro station in the city center, causing the automatic shutdown of all public transportation in the city. Planes were redirected, flights cancelled, city borders closed. Schools locked their doors so that no one would get out – or get in. Cellphone signals were temporarily cut.
For a few hours, at least, absolute chaos turned Brussels the center of all news, from United States to Brazil to Australia to China (I must comment here my perplexity with the fact that international broadcasting companies such as BBC were faster and more accurate in giving information than the Belgian media was). Desperate messages popped in every citizen’s phone with questions of welfare and safety, like: “Are you ok?”, “Are you safe?” and “Are you alive?” Social media was flooded with Belgian flags and messages of love and support (#staystrongbrussels). International landmarks turned black, yellow and red as a show of support and respect.
By the way, a side comment: I never thought the public messages, honoring acts and minutes of silence helped that much, but that day, when chaos was ruling and everything was confusing, seeing the love and compassion emerge from people, companies and whole countries from around the globe was an important stabilizer. Even people with whom I hadn’t talked for years sent me messages to know if I was well. I was very touched by all the support. It helped, guys. It really did. Thank you.
But going back to the news: the final count was 31 people dead, roughly a fourth of the victims accounted in the Paris attacks. The trauma was not smaller or less strong because of it, though. In the aftermath of the terrorist acts, the city tries to lick its wounds as life goes on. But what about its citizens? How are they affected by all of this?
According to Pippa Norris, Montague Kern and Marion Just in the book Framing Terrorism: The News Media, The Government and The Public (2003, Routledge), the most immediate reaction to a terrorist attack is fear and anxiety, which may provoke in people an elevation of risk perceptions, risk aversion and impairment on the ability to process information in a rational way (or, in other words, it makes us afraid, paranoid and overly emotional). Sometimes, as much as life wants to go on, it can’t.
I had to work from home for two days, isolated from all the madness, the fear and the rage. Well, isolated in terms. I was following the news closely, which allowed me to see all the heated debates about whether Belgian authorities saw this coming and if they were really prepared for it or not (general consensus is that they weren’t because of its inexperience with terrorism and due to its lack of resources). Citizens in general either absorbed all information available (even when it was tendentious) or decided that they had heard enough and limited their interest in the matter to a minimum.
The reaction that I feared the most, though, was the possibility that the terrorist events would increase xenophobia (prejudice against strangers and foreigners). There’s no point in lying: it did. But the voice that was louder was one of understanding, of urging people to love, not hate, of compassion towards others. Someone even gave a nice view of the situation from the immigrant perspective: “There are members of our diverse society who have experienced past terrorist incidents. The knowledge and experience they have gained from surviving and coping with these incidents can make them a valuable resource on how to cope and how to offer assistance to others.”
What differentiates the people who have a reaction of hate and prejudice to those who spread love and support? A lot of factors, but it is more or less related to how you’re designed to react to a traumatic event. Thomas A. Grieger, MD, explains a little more about it on his article Psychiatric and Societal Impacts of Terrorism, published in 2006 at the Psychiatric Times: “Genetic makeup, social contexts, past experiences, and future expectations may interact with the characteristics of the traumatic event to produce a psychological response. Close proximity to the event, severity of exposure, low levels of social support, previous psychiatric illness, history of trauma, and ongoing negative life events may all influence the onset and course of a psychiatric reaction.”
This whole experience taught me a lot about society and how it reacts to a collective trauma. Fear – and its overcoming – is a subject that I can’t help reading about whenever I have the chance. Maybe because, as love and belief, it is one of the forces that defines our lives and who we are in a deep and immeasurable level.
A few days after the terrorist attacks, I found myself in the city center, where an homage was being made to the victims; flowers, candles and every sort of objects were put together over flags that were laid on the ground, with hundreds of people around it, to participate and honor the victims, whom they might not even have known. It touched me immensely; so much that I started crying as I stood there, watching the silent homage take place. Later I would read in a text written by Judith J. Matthewson that this was a very important moment for the city because, according to her, “without the ability to successfully mourn our dead, memorialize heroes, and continue to grow as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation, our way of life would be disrupted and the terrorists would win.” I’m not sure that the people who were there realized this, but their own kindness helped them to in their healing process.