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It all started like a bad hangover on a Saturday morning, a week after the Paris attacks, with the announcement of a similar  » serious and imminent  » (level 4) threat in Brussels. An alert level determined by the opaque OCAM (Coordinating Body for Threat Analysis) and followed by unprecedented political decisions. A Belgian city had never been in such a state of siege in the days of the Brabant Killers or the CCCs, nor in Paris or in countries where there are regular waves of attacks. 

For six days, we have been swimming in paradoxical injunctions. « Economic and social life must continue « , the government said while paralyzing Brussels with measures that were not always consistent: markets open on Saturday but cancelled on Sunday and the following days, metro closed while trains ran quietly in the city, large gatherings forbidden but also a multitude of small cultural or sports events, opening of a Crisis Center and its emergency call line yet inaccessible from the evening, large stores open but schools closed, then reopened without particular surveillance despite the maintenance of the alert level (suddenly, our leaders were perfectly informed on the intentions of the terrorists for whom « Schools and subways would be less likely to be targets »), or giving a bonus to
De Lijn drivers accepting to work despite the threat,… Behind the stated objective of removing a threat (an objective that even the Public Prosecutor’s Office has never confirmed has been achieved), this cacophony has plunged the population into confusion and psychosis, with some parents and commuters wondering why they were being put at such risk in a period of « maximum danger ». 


After a week of closure, it took all the art of political backtracking to justify the evaporation of the threat, which suddenly became « possible and probable » (level 3) a few hours after the Prime Minister declared that it « is ahead of us », and while the OCAM had announced that it would remain at level 4 for several more days. So had the police found the « heavily armed » terrorists whose hunt for them justified the sealing off of Brussels? Not at all. First of all, we still don’t know how many terrorists there were, their number having oscillated from one to ten according to the statements. Their weapons and explosives were never seized. And Public Enemy No. 1 remained unaccounted for after being seen in turn in Anderlecht and Molenbeek, in a gay bar and at the King Baudouin stadium, but also in the direction of Syria and Germany. He was even the subject of an attempted arrest near Liège… except that it wasn’t him, but a young man from a good family who was almost killed by the police while he was sleeping. As for the 16 people arrested during the first searches, 15 were released the next day without charge… Despite this lack of results, the government explained to us that « The urgency of the threat is gradually reducing ». Not with spectacular assaults or the dismantling of networks, no, this is not a movie. But moving « little by little towards a normalization of the situation », slowly, silently. 

In fact, the raising and lowering of the alert level seems to have been used more for political purposes than for policing. In a week of closure, the Brussels economy was hit hard while there was an upsurge in Islamophobic acts. Worse: it was close to one before the Winter Fun was cancelled! The City of Brussels, struggling to reassure shoppers and tourists to come back to the city center to shop (especially since a federal minister had just declared that the terrorists’ preferred targets would be « commercial activity poles »), felt the ground crumble under its feet. But all’s well that ends well: thanks to the lowering of the alert, the next day she was able to inaugurate her Christmas market with its sponsored tinsel, its industrial Gluh Wein, its searches and its police patrols backed up by security guards. A nice end of the year in perspective. Except that unless we were satisfied with having regained our freedom to consume, we had to admit that we had just experienced a moment of acceleration, the trigger of something whose contours were still difficult to define, and that it was high time to worry about the freedoms that we might lose in this story. 

During level 4, not only the streets of Brussels were empty. The media, usually so quick to offer continuous news on such occasions, were deafeningly silent. They have thus accepted « the instructions given« Keep quiet while the police are working (and while social network users are spreading images of cats — they will be thanked for this by sending an image of kibble in a bowl with the logo of the federal police), not ask any questions when the Prosecutor’s Office deigns to give a press conference of barely 10 minutes and in three languages please. The Belgian media hardly dwelt on the chemical weapons that turned out to be beaten milk, nor on the police operation in Rue du Midi, which the foreign press had to read about as a « false alarm ». And when they announced that a « wave of attacks » had been thwarted, it was mainly their information that was vague — it would later be denied. This analysis from a national radio station, in the midst of the Brussels closure, sums up the media mindset of the moment and the absence of any critical perspective: « The threat remains real and concrete. Why is this? Well, because the level 4 of the threat is maintained in Brussels and, let’s remember, it corresponds to an imminent threat ». Brilliant. 

But it is not only the press that has been silent. For a few days, the critical voices were inaudible, as if they had been anesthetized by the mere mention of the term « terrorism ». It took three days for the first questions to emerge about the nature of what was going on: an anti-terrorist operation, or an experiment in crossing new borders in the security state with a government dominated by the N‑VA (which runs the departments of Security, Interior and Defense)? But three days is more than enough time to install a climate of fear and anxiety, to make people accept many precedents, « exceptional » measures which, insidiously, may well become habitual… Since November, the army is on the street. New liberticidal laws have been passed in a hurry. And there is now talk of introducing a level 5 threat level, next to which level 4 would be no more than a banality. 

From this point of view, the most terrifying lesson of this episode is perhaps to see how quickly silence can be established and counter-power dry up. 

Gwenaël Breës

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