Too close for comfort

This blog was really supposed to be about last Saturday, when we spent an afternoon campaigning for the Ukraine referendum in Tilburg. About how well received we were, apart from a few people shouting ‘PVV!’ at us. And about how I wasn’t even aware of the manhunt in Vorst and Abdeslam’s arrest, all of which happened many kilometres away from my house and the European Parliament.

But I suddenly find myself in the middle of it all. I heard about the attacks on Zaventem just before I was about to leave for my internship. On my way to the EP, a ten-minute walk, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. At most, I heard a few more sirens than usual. Once at the office, I heard about the attacks on the metro station in Maalbeek. This metro station is the stop you need when you’re going to the Parliament or the European Commission. In the meantime, worried messages started flooding my phone. In addition, I was bombarded with requests for the latest updates for various news media, and if I could spare a response for newspaper x/channel y/radio show z?

All of it felt wrong, and so I didn’t respond. And yet I’m writing about it on my blog. I can’t just ignore what happened and pretend my life revolves only around the Ukraine referendum. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not pretending I was an eyewitness here. I didn’t see anything.

‘A few pubs on the square in front of the Parliament were open’
The only difference between you and me is probably the location from which we read the liveblogs and Twitter streams. Or that I would sometimes get the metro at Maalbeek, as probably most people who work at the EP or the Commission do. And that, if I’m brave enough, I can go and have a look at the streets that are shut down. But it doesn’t feel right to tell the media ‘oh, I’m safe at the EP, there’s just a few more sirens than usual’, just because I happen to have been in the neighbourhood. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about the people who were murdered, just a ten-minute walk away, by terrorists who hate us and want to spread fear.

And the worst part is: it’s working. That horrible cliché of ‘it hits close to home’ turns out to be true. The endless repeated images on television do have an impact, now that I recognise all the places they’re showing. I don’t want to be afraid, but I am, a little. I don’t want to let these terrorists influence my life, but I’ll probably think twice before taking the metro in the future. I’ll pay more attention to people with conspicuous luggage who act ‘suspiciously’. I’ll check my exits. I’ll no longer feel absolutely safe in large crowds or at busy tourist attractions, no matter how many soldiers I see.

The EP wasn’t evacuated, but the security measures were tightened (even more). The rest of the work day was surreal. Everyone was trying to contact their friends and families to let them know they were okay, and to check how they were doing. All meetings and events were cancelled. Outside of the EP, however, the lockdown was barely noticeable. Even a few pubs on the square in front of the Parliament were open. There were people on the street and I even managed to get some fries at the snack bar around the corner.

Today (Wednesday) most of the EP buildings are closed. Martin Schulz, president of the Parliament, has asked everyone to work from home. And so we will. And after that, life will go on. But every time, we’re all a little more cautious than we were before the attacks.