Most days, I listen to the radio on the way to work in the car, like most people. I don’t much like driving in Dublin but for all that, it’s ten thousand times better than getting the bus was. Out of ecological collective responsibility grounds I tried that for 4 months. It was not good.
But I have between 30 and 60 minutes in the car most mornings, depending on what time I leave home, and I listen to the radio because I can’t read, and I can’t do study, and I can’t do other things I might do with an hour free. For one thing, there are cyclists and for another there are Audi drivers. I maximise the use I get out of that time by listening to foreign language radio. I start off with NDR from Germany, and usually, around half way through the journey, or when the sports news comes on, I switch to France Info. Sometimes, on the way home I listen to RTBF. RTBF is the Belgian/French language equivalent of RTE and I listen to it because I used to live in Brussels. I don’t often care too much about the content of the news, but I value the fact that it forces me to keep a level of foreign language comprehension skills active. Switching between them is good for me too.
On Monday evening this week, I was listening to RTBF and for various reasons, in a rush, RTBF was what remained on the radio at twenty past seven on Tuesday morning. I never listen to it in the morning – my default is always NDR for the morning – so it was pure chance that I tuned in just as reports were starting to break about the explosions at the airport in Brussels. I can remember my blood running cold…I can remember the presenters frantically trying telling people not to go to the airport, that all access was closed, frantically trying to find out what had happened. They had no reporters on the ground at the airport and this was less than 30 minutes, I guess, after the first bomb had gone off. They had so little information at that point in time that they weren’t sure where in the airport the two bombs had gone off. Initially, there was a report that one might have gone off on the tarmac. I worked at an airport for more than 10 years of my life. How on earth, I wondered, in shock, could an explosion happen on the tarmac?
I drove to work not hearing the words “gas explosion” or “accident” but “people are being very careful not to identify the cause of these explosions”. I also learned that both explosions appeared to take place in the check in hall in the terminal building.
By the time I got to work, scant reports about Maalbeek were starting to come out and on that, it seemed clear that the odds of finding a benign – for want of a suitable term – cause of the incident at the airport – were growing much, much longer. Smoke pouring out of underground stations is not generally a good thing.
I’ve been over and back to Brussels a lot in the last 24 months. The last couple of times I had cause to stay overnight there, it’s been at the Thon Hotel in the EU quarter. It’s about 20 metres from Maalbeek. On Tuesday, its lobby became an A&E incident room for the casualties from the explosion below. I lived 2 metro stops along the same line so pretty much everywhere I went by metro in Brussels when I was living there took me through Maalbeek. TBH, this felt awfully close to a person I used to be.
One of the running themes in the Vimes collection of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett talks about how, in staying alive in the face of an attractive bounty on his head for the Assassin’s Guild, he needs to be lucky every single day. The would be assassin only has to be lucky once. That’s the balance of luck between us, the public, and anyone who wants to cause chaos. And no matter how much work we do to minimise risk in the face of attacks like this, it’s still the case: terrorist only has to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time. No matter how much we balance the odds in our favour, they have to be lucky once.
I rail against calling them terrorists, as it happens. That gives them the status they are looking for. They are mass murdering criminals, and it is as criminals we should be treating them, not some special snowflakes.
Brussels is an extraordinary city. I loved it for the fact that pretty much anything I wanted to do, I could. I came home for family reasons in the end, but there are a lot of days – particularly sitting in the car watching yet another Audi A6 driver trying to whip off the front of my car – where I wish Dublin was more like Brussels. In the way of public transport, for example, in the way of shopping. It has a lot of the pluses of living somewhere like Paris without too many of the minuses, like scale. There are days I truly miss the smell of fresh bread from the bakery that was near my apartment. I love that it has giant comicbook murals. I love some of its street art. I love the architecture of the buildings. And I love the shops.
I am immensely pissed off that anyone would bomb it. And I am heartbroken that the families of more than 30 people are coming to terms with a life less ordinary and that for 300 more people and their families, yesterday was a lot different to how all the tomorrows will be.