A View From Brussels

This post was written by Wes Knowles, a junior international relations major studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium this semester.

The past 8 days has been the most unusual of my study abroad experience. Europe, a place of peace and non-violence was racked by a vicious attack in Paris that changed the outlook of the region in ways that will affect generations. As the Paris attacks were unfolding I found myself worrying about my grandmother and uncle who were actually in the city center when it happened. In the hours after, I began to fear for the long-term implications that the attack would bring, and how the world was now a much more uncertain place than it had been a few short hours beforehand.

However, what I never imagined was how my own host-city, Brussels, would become the second most talked about city in the aftermath of the Paris attacks as it was revealed how the attacks were planned right here in Brussels.


Brussels is an unusual place. The city is divided into 19 different cities within the “Brussels region” which still form one sprawling metropolis. Brussels is much like the 5 boroughs in New York City, but with 19 different boroughs and 6 different police departments and city halls. Molenbeek, now seen as the capital of radical Islam in Europe, is just a short walk away from my apartment. If I were to go right and cross the canal that once made Brussels a trading capital in Medieval Europe, I would find myself in Molenbeek, the place where police were raiding the houses of terror suspects.

Last night, as I walked through the city center of Brussels I could not help but notice the increased presence of military troops. A Humvee, a soldier here, a soldier there, at least twenty in total by the time I walked back to my apartment. However, there was nothing on the news to indicate that something was afoot so I went to bed as though nothing was going on.


When I woke up, I read that the metro had been closed, and I heard how there was actionable intelligence of a terrorist attack using the same strategies as in Paris.

Brussels is a city of quirkiness. It’s the city of Tin-Tin, of chocolate, of waffles covered in sugar, of beers brewed from apricots and cherries, and it is this same cute quirkiness that makes the threat of terrorism so ominous. Walking the streets, no one talked to one another. There was no buzz. Going around every corner required a steeling of nerves, and the feeling of tensions at the sight of Humvees and the furtive looks of scared fellow citizens.


Now, Brussels stands on the edge. Four suspects have been arrested, two are on the loose and one is believed to be wearing a suicide vest. So what happens tomorrow? If these suspects are not apprehended does life resume its normal cheery buzz? Or will the metros remain closed and soldiers remain stationed outside hamburger restaurants? When does life return to normal?

Terrorism does this to us. While ought not run needlessly into danger, we also cannot put our lives on hold for a threat by a handful of individuals in a city of one million.


In response to the attacks in Paris, and the general level of danger, some of my fellow classmates are packing up and going home. The situation is too dangerous they believe, and it is time to return and hope for a better tomorrow. However, this does not sit well with me. A better tomorrow is not built on hope, and it certainly is not built on leaving in times of trial.

My belief in remaining in Brussels/Europe has little to do with being “defiant,” as some believe that we have to be in the face of danger, but rather comes from a fear that by closing ourselves off to others we will invite more attacks.

Many are seeking to make this a story of multiculturalism and its failures, but the real failure has been by the government in Brussels making no effort to improve the situation in Molenbeek over the years, and choosing to ignore the anger coming out of there for years. This is not a story of incompatible societies; rather it is the story of a lack of effort. Travel, reaching across cultural lines, and attempting to build bridges is the key to ending such terrorist actions. To use the recent events in Beirut, Paris, Mali, or Brussels to justify isolationism and to ignore these tools will only exacerbate the problem of cultural isolation and the emerging pattern of violence.

Multiculturalism is the solution to this problem. So, now is the time for us to travel further than we ever have before. The more we as students study abroad, the more we interact with those in other countries, and the more cultures we expose ourselves to the safer we will ultimately be in the long run. As Mark Twain once said:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

So do not fall into this idea that the world is too dangerous a place to travel, instead realize that the world is too dangerous a place not to travel.