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The bombs that went off in Brussels on the third day of spring had been expected for a long time. The Belgian capital is a major hub for politics and culture at the heart of the European project—in other words, the perfect target. It is also a major destination for immigrants. Estimates of the Muslim population of Brussels are in the double-digits, often clustered in poorer residential suburbs such as Molenbeek. Immigrants and second-generation Europeans are visible throughout the city, giving Brussels the cosmopolitan flair of a twenty-first century European metropolis.
Throughout the 1960s and 1980s, when a large wave of immigrants arrived from Turkey and Morocco, it seemed like it would be impossible to integrate them. But reflexive racism soon met the reality of daily life. Political parties that peddled xenophobia, such as the Vlaams Blok, were ostracized on moral grounds. And it was clear that the lifestyle of the second generation would align well with that of the average Belgian. They shared language, soccer, and eating (particularly drinking) habits. Young women flocked to jobs and higher education. Young men faced a more difficult journey to employment, but some did well in a structurally tight labor market. And outside of the capital, the Belgian government had limited the density at which immigrants could settle in each neighborhood or village in order to encourage integration.
Against the current of assimilation, a few discovered their Muslim and immigrant origins and claimed them as a badge of difference and victimization. Inspired, incited by violence in the Middle East, the killings began. Islamists struck Paris in 1994–95; Madrid, in 2004; London, in 2005; and Paris again, twice, in 2015. Throughout that period, Germany had a few lucky escapes. And Brussels was bracing itself for what was coming.
To be sure, victims have been few and far between, and the killers’ actions are marginal to the daily interactions between majority and minority populations. But the very randomness of the killings has helped them capture the continent’s attention. Violence has diminished faith in integration. And nativist political parties have moved into the mainstream. Europe, in turn, shut its doors to Syrian refugees, triggering an emergency that, in the wake of the euro meltdown, is breaking Europe apart.
The vast impact of a mere handful of killers scattered over two decades is even more dizzying when one realizes that they have no tactical or strategic objective. The motivations of the killers are not ideological or sectarian. They do not strike because they are Muslims with a literal reading of Islam. Their motivations are expressionist: They are about radicalism and aesthetics.
Consider, for example, how this latest spate of attacks compares to terrorism in previous decades. Terrorists have killed heads of state, ministers and industrialists, soldiers and policemen, and all sorts of collaborators with the state. They have attacked embassies and national airlines, military barracks, and government facilities—all symbols of state power. They have taken hostages and broken into prisons to free their comrades. Passersby were sometimes sacrificed to collateral damage, but killing random civilians was never a matter of fact. Targeting them as such was always the exception, until it recently became the norm.
The latest operations have all been casualty-maximizing attacks against soft civilian targets. The victims are commuters in airports and subways; leisure-seekers winding down on a beach, in a restaurant, at a sport or artistic event; weekend shoppers in a mall. The victims are mundane, faceless, absurdly inoffensive, and their only value is in their number and diversity. To be sure, the attacks are impactful. They are economically disruptive. They are politically dramatic. They not only polarize European civil society, but also lead governments to curtail civil liberties. However, the attacks have no reward beyond the publicity they bring to the attackers. The new terrorism has no goal, no objective, no demands to negotiate.
In each of the recent cases, the killers have been nowhere near strong enough to destroy the social order or shape the creation of a new one. Their embrace of suicide attacks testifies to that: They are not waiting around to see the effects of their actions, in the short or long term. Their politics do not go beyond glorified suicide.
That reality should direct policy. The attacks have exposed the deficiency of a strategy based on counterterrorism. European capitals have over 20 years of expertise fighting Islamist terrorism. Brussels and Paris were highly vigilant throughout 2015, and in a virtual state of emergency since the November Paris attacks. To no avail. Expanding already pervasive security measures is a Sisyphean effort that consumes freedom. Engaging Islam in a reformative battle of ideas likewise misses the target. Whatever tensions may exist between Islam and secular Western modernity, they have nothing to do with the motivations of mass killers, many of whom had no connection to the creed until they decided to fight.
Each generation has produced its radicals, and there is little a society can do about youthful angst except channel it. Those driven to armed struggle could be reoriented rather than opposed. In the late 1930s, European democracies let radicals journey to Spain to fight autocracy and fascism. Their experience prefigured the resistance against Nazi Germany. In turn, the experiment was tried in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Mujahideen confronted the Soviet Union with the assistance of the free world. To be sure, those moves look risky in retrospect, but the wisdom of detaining the young Europeans who want to fight the Syrian regime, and incarcerating those who come back, is questionable. Hundreds of Belgians, and a couple of thousands of French, have gone to Syria. Most are not destined to go back and attack their homeland.
Islamist terrorists resemble each other only in behavior. Their background is not the same; their mental journey to radicalization is not the same. For the young Europeans who are still on the fence, governments can sway their final decision by engaging them on the aesthetic front. For years, radicals have recruited new terrorists with images of young Muslim victims—Syrian children gassed by the regime, a Palestinian infant burned to death. The same empathy can be leveraged for a different effect, as in the case of Malala Yousafzai, a Pashtun girl turned cause célèbre after she was shot by the Taliban for going to school.
In other words, it is not the raging condemnation of Western statesmen whom the potential terrorists despise that will affect their choices. Rather, it is exposure to the cruel absurdity of killing civilians. It is not lofty dissertations on the implications of hadiths that will change their minds, but disgust at the blood of children. Terrorists are prideful; jihad is the ultimate form of teenage rebellion and self-aggrandizement. They should be convinced that the mass killing of civilians is not demonic but pathetic, not empowering but demeaning. Beyond the security failure of the state, the killings in Brussels, as in Paris a few months ago, are a terrible failure of messaging. And that is the first thing Europe must get right.