21st Mar 2018


Living with terror

  • A depressingly familiar pattern is now emerging after each atrocity: shock and horror, followed by mourning for the victims at candlelit vigils or in defiant messages on social media. (Photo: Alice Latta)

If you think it’s hard for adults to cope with the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks, just think how hard it is for kids.

How do you convince them that the metro they take regularly is safe again when a suicide attacker has just blown 20 people to shreds in a similar carriage to the one they are now sitting in?

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  • How do you explain the kids that the airport you are about to jet off from for sunnier climes won’t suffer the same fate as the one in Brussels, where a dozen innocent voyagers were killed? (Photo: Valentina Pop)

How do you explain to them that the airport you are about to jet off from for sunnier climes won’t suffer the same fate as the one in Brussels, where a dozen innocent voyagers were killed?

And how do you answer the inevitable questions about what drives people of faith to massacre innocent people without getting bogged down in the quicksands of politics, religion and history?

If you are a child psychologist, no doubt you have pat answers to these questions. But we, and tens of thousands of other parents like us in Brussels, are not child psychologists. So we offer hugs and shrugs instead of explanations and try to shield our kids from the worst of the horror, knowing full well that in a wired world any attempt at siphoning news is futile.

Above all we improvise – and we’ve been doing so since January last year when 17 people were shot dead in Paris at a Jewish supermarket and the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Ever since, terror has entered our homes, upended many of our family rituals and seeped into the minds of our children in ways I could never have imagined.

From rugby to bombs

When I was growing up in south Wales in the 1970s and early 1980s, dinnertime conversations usually revolved around rugby, rock music and Risk.

The threat of the world being blown to smithereens hovered in the background but it was never palpable and teachers’ drills involving us ducking and covering under our desks to protect us from nuclear bombs always seemed slightly ludicrous.

There was also the Soviet menace - and later IRA attacks - but the idea of the Red Army marching down Swansea High Street seemed as implausible as the Berlin Wall falling or Nelson Mandela becoming president of South Africa. Quite frankly my greatest existential worry was whether Wales would beat England in rugby.

What a contrast with the world my daughters, aged 10 and 12, are being brought up in. For the past year or so in Brussels, table talk has been about refugees drowning, suicide bombers blowing themselves up and cartoonists getting massacred – in addition to the usual family fare of unemptied dishwashers, undone homework and untidied bedrooms.

Of course, it doesn’t help that mum and dad are political wonks who are hooked on the news like some are hooked on heroin. Neither does it help that maman is from central Paris – scene of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Bataclan concert hall massacre at the end of the year. Along with hundreds of thousands of others, our children waved placards proclaiming ‘Je Suis Charlie’ at the Place de la Republique commemoration in Paris. And later in the year they marched behind “Refugees Welcome” banners in Brussels and donated the proceeds from their annual old clothes sale to those fleeing war in Iraq and Syria.

The golden 'frite'

But my kids are by no means unique in what they have experienced over the past 15 months. Every pupil in their schools observed a minute’s silence for the murdered cartoonists in January 2015, the Bataclan slaughter in November and the Brussels attacks last week.

Immediately after last Tuesday’s atrocity, my younger daughter’s teacher told the class about what had happened. Three pupils broke down in tears because their relatives worked at the airport or near the metro station where the bombs exploded. The day after, my 12-year old had an hour’s conversation in class about the attacks while the 10-year old was asked by her teacher to express in images how she felt about the tragic events. She copied a cartoon she’d seen on Instagram of a golden ‘frite’ (chip/French fry) giving the middle finger to terrorists. In true Belgian style, her teacher pinned it to the classroom door.

The next day at breakfast one daughter arrived for school wearing the yellow, red and black of the Belgian flag while the other was dressed head-to-toe in black. It was their and their classmates’ defiant way of mourning the dead – all organised on Snapchat.

Social media world

Some parents believe the best way of protecting their children is to restrict what they see. Unfortunately, reality does not always give you that luxury. After the November shootings in Paris, all schools – along with universities, cinemas, government offices and shopping malls – were shut for three days in what became known as the Brussels lockdown. Soldiers have patrolled the streets of the city ever since, often disembarking from troop carriers with guns cocked. Difficult to hide that from the kids.

After the lockdown it was revealed that one of the ringleaders – Abdelhamid Abaaoud – had studied at the same Catholic school in the leafy neighbourhood of Uccle that child one goes to. So for weeks after a handful of armed soldiers were stationed outside her school. In a classic Belgian compromise, child two’s primary school got an armed guard every other day.

What our children don’t see and hear at home and in their classrooms, they find out from the media. When pictures of the drowned Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi were published I was haunted by the images and didn’t want my kids to see them.

A few days later my younger daughter produced a copy of her ‘Journal des Enfants’ – a free newspaper distributed at school – and showed me the picture of the lifeless refugee child Aylan accompanied by a story they had already discussed in class. When police raided an apartment rented by suspected terrorist sympathisers in the neighbouring Forest district last week, a police helicopter hovered above my elder girl’s school for over four hours. When I got home, both were watching the scene unfold live on Belgian TV.

Social media has made breaking news and views even more ubiquitous, omnipresent and inescapable – no matter how gory. After the twin Paris attacks, number one posted #jesuischarlie and #prayforparis hashtags. And after the Brussels killings, her Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram timelines – like those of all her friends – have been full of images of Tintin and Snowy with tears rolling down their cheeks and the Manneken Pis statue peeing on terrorists.

Disturbing nonchalance

A depressingly familiar pattern is now emerging after each atrocity: shock and horror, followed by mourning for the victims at candlelit vigils or in defiant messages on social media. And if truth be told, this familiarity with terror is fostering a disturbing nonchalance.

During the November lockdown, my younger daughter felt afraid for her safety and for weeks after both had nightmares about Jihadists storming their bedrooms at night. But after this week’s attacks, there was shock but little surprise.

Classes resumed the next day and soldiers were too busy hunting down terrorists to guard the girls’ schools. ‘#prayforbrussels’ tweets were sent but failed to trend like ‘#prayforparis.’ Even a ‘March against Fear’ planned for the Sunday after the carnage was cancelled because of fear for participants’ safety.

Terror, it seems, has become the new normal.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding

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