The horrific images from Brussels are difficult to watch because of the joyous times my wife and I spent living in that beautiful city several years ago.
The carnage at an airport and a metro station we frequented for three years is a painful reminder of a world seemingly gone mad and, equally troubling, of a likely response that too often is only anger that pulls us farther apart.
Brussels is now described as a “hotbed for terrorism” rather than a breathtaking, proud city populated by friendly people who made us feel welcome wherever we went. That warm reception was particularly appreciated because we lived there as American ex-pats from 2003 until 2006, when the U.S. was increasingly pilloried in Europe because of its invasion of Iraq in the guise of fighting terrorism.
Two years before our arrival in Brussels, my wife and I and one of our daughters were in New York, near ground zero on 9-11, witnessing the horror of terrorism on U.S. soil, occurring literally across the street from where we were staying. Between then and the Iraq invasion, we watched another troubling sight – the worldwide unity and support for an America victimized by terrorism dissolving in the minds of many Europeans because of our country’s bellicose, arrogant and “ready-fire-aim” response.
Certainly, the world has become an even more dangerous place in the last decade, with the emergence of ISIS and others whose mission is destruction of anyone who disagrees with their radical beliefs. But responding with hatred and distrust toward anyone who disagrees with our beliefs – as too many of us have done following 9-11 and attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and now Brussels – is not the answer and only repeats mistakes of the past.
Particularly during this mean U.S. political season, the divisive and simplistic rhetoric – “let’s go kill the bastards!” – is exactly the opposite of what we need. To fight the biggest global threat since World War II, we need a response similar to the unified resolve that met and defeated Nazism. Yes, all of our presidential candidates are preaching unity, but can we really believe them when they’re hurling insults and blame at the same time?
Of course, it’s difficult not to hate with such heart-breaking images from Brussels. But I hope we can also remember the lessons of World War II – particularly when this terrorism occurred at the hub of the European Union, the lasting legacy of Europe’s unified response to that war. We’ll undoubtedly see unified sympathy in the days ahead – perhaps Belgium’s flag superimposed over our Facebook images – but can’t we try to progress to true lasting unity rather than immediately returning to the next volley of political attack ads?
Ken Gepfert of Charlotte is a former editor at The Observer who spent three years in Brussels as an editor for the European edition of The Wall Street Journal.