Hours after the horrific terror attacks in Brussels on Tuesday, a correspondent on one of the American cable networks remarked that ordinary Belgians were predicting grimly that security would be very tight that day—and that the next day, it would return to the same casual mediocrity that had failed to stop the attack in the first place.
The Belgians were speaking from experience—from an awful familiarity with how their security services respond to the terror threats that are so frequent in European cities.
But they might just as well have been describing the reaction of Western civilization itself—its response to a virulent ideology that is determined to destroy it by any means necessary.
Again and again, we are attacked by people who have warned us of exactly what they intend to do, who have explained exactly what motivates them, and who have proved beyond doubt that they are sincere. Again and again, we respond to the violence with shock, psychoanalysis and a brief surge of force before going back to life—and business and security—as usual.
That’s what happened after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and other targets in France last winter. It’s what happened after the shootings on the Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris last summer. And what happened after the stabbings at the University of California at Merced last fall. And after the Paris attacks the same month. And after the San Bernardino attack a few weeks later.
When will the Western world decide to be serious about confronting this threat? After there is a biological or chemical attack in one of these cities—or worse?
Tuesday’s events in Belgium came days after the police arrested Salah Abdeslam, the final surviving terrorist behind the most recent Paris attacks. He was residing in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. He had been there, and eluded capture, for more than four months.
When Abdeslam was arrested, the neighborhood rioted. The people threw garbage and bottles at the police. Belgian media reported that the community had known the fugitive was hiding there the whole time.
How can we have neighborhoods in European cities that shelter terrorists and then riot when we catch someone responsible for the murder of 130 innocent people (and the injury of hundreds more)?
The challenge, of course, is much greater than a single neighborhood. Claude Moniquet, a former French intelligence officer, told CBS News that he could “agree to say that Molenbeek is a hotbed of terrorism if we agree at the same time to say that is not the only hotbed of terrorism in Europe.”
“You could find the same in London,” he continued. “You could find the same in the north of France.”
These are countries whose residents travel freely throughout western Europe and even to the United States and Canada, with little or no scrutiny.
In other words, the Brussels attacks should be a reminder that meeting the threat is going to require real changes and force us to reassess decades of assumptions. Swapping out our Facebook profile pictures and lightening up landmarks in solidarity will not be enough to address the danger we have allowed to grow up within Western countries.
Which brings us to the president’s trip to Cuba this week. President Obama has long aimed to sew closer ties with the Cuban regime, inspired by an idealistic internationalism that has clashed with the reality of events throughout his presidency—up through and including the attacks today.
As part of his effort to woo the Cuban dictatorship and signal his righteousness to the nations of the world, the president has been determined to close our terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Yet here too he has been frustrated by reality. It seems no other members of the “international community” will agree to take their fair share of the terrorists. Perhaps it’s because, whether in Europe or the Middle East or South Asia, they are all too familiar with the type.
For the president, the juxtaposition of the Brussels attack with his tour of our hemisphere’s last communist dictatorship must have been at least a little chilling. Let’s hope it produces an epiphany in this final year of his presidency: to preserve the delicate balance between freedom and security that the Western democracies have uniquely maintained, we will certainly need Guantanamo, or places like it.