Fifteen years ago I woke in my flat at the northern end of Manhattan, unemployed and hungover. I munched on a stale bagel while gazing out the kitchen window at the Palisades. A friend who’d recently moved out of the city called on my landline, the only line I had: ‘I got through – Lee! The towers are gone!’ I turned the radio on and heard the chaos, then ran downstairs to the bar I’d left a few hours earlier. On the way I watched a white man accost an Arab cab driver, yelling: ‘I’m gonna call the cops on you!’ The bar’s television showed the towers fall countless times over the next three hours. I took the subway as far south as it went, then walked as close to Ground Zero as I could, close enough anyway to leave footprints in the dust.
This morning I woke in the Brussels commune of Saint-Gilles, not much more employed and hungover from last night’s weekly outdoor market and apéro in front of one of the city’s nineteen town halls. I had two text messages: ‘We just heard the news, are you OK?’ I knew instantly what had happened. Those two messages asking if I was all right were enough to tell me there’d been an attack in Brussels and people had died while I slept.
No one called, the network was jammed, but I got more texts and WhatsApp messages. I still don’t own a television, but instead of the radio I read Le Soir online and watched a bit of live coverage. Then I ran downstairs, across the street that had been packed with food vendors and mobile wine bars and people the night before, where I’d drunk Portuguese wine with my Spanish, Flemish and Rwandan neighbours while eating a Congolese vendor’s grilled goat and thinking, as I often have since the Paris attacks last November, that such a gathering was an easy target. I jumped on my bike, which I keep locked in front of the town hall, and rode into town.
In Saint-Gilles it seemed business as usual, the local cafes open, pedestrians about. But Brussels is a small town, and I could already hear the sirens. On the pentagonal petite ceinture around the city, near the Porte de Namur, there were police motorcycles escorting ambulances in both directions. Something was different about the soldiers who’ve been on the streets since the Charlie Hebdo massacre – their berets had come off, replaced by helmets. Police blocked an otherwise empty rue de la Loi, one stop away from the Maelbeek metro station, where there’d been one explosion. I tried to turn down the parallel rue Joseph II but a police van was getting into position to block it off. Visibly shaken police, walking from the direction of Maelbeek station a kilometre ahead, yelled repeatedly at pedestrians and drivers and me: ‘S’il vous plaît! Go home and watch it on television!’ I took a sidestreet and found myself metres from my last place of full-time employment. I’d had no thought of going there when I mounted my bike this morning. It employed forty people, many of whom took the metro every day to work, getting off the stop after Maelbeek.
My former colleague looked up with a shocked smile and said into the phone: ‘Lee est là.’ He was talking to his wife. None of his colleagues had been anywhere near the airport or metro station. He apologised for not getting in touch with me to have lunch. He’s Belgian. His family was safe, but he was angry. ‘You want to live by sharia, you want to treat your women like they’re, they’re … whatever, fine, but don’t do it here, because we’ve fought for centuries to achieve our civil liberties, our freedoms. Integrate or go home, behave or go to jail. You know that video showing the arrest and shooting of Abdeslam? Yesterday the media were actually questioning shooting him when he was unarmed, like the police could know that, can you believe that?’
I told him I’d seen an Antwerp ambulance on my way there. ‘All the way from Antwerp?’
‘The authorities have detailed plans for health catastrophes. So they do a triage and the critically injured are taken to hospitals in and near Brussels, others go to Ghent or Antwerp, which is only thirty or forty minutes away. Or they get airlifted.’
‘I wonder how well those plans are working,’ I said. ‘Co-ordination, communication, you know.’
‘Those work,’ he said. I said I supposed there weren’t the same turf wars between health authorities as there are between police precincts or regional governments.
‘But things are going to change here,’ he said. ‘People are fed up.’
I felt like a target riding my bike, so I got off and walked on the pavement. Sidestreets were cordoned off, until 500 metres from the Maalbeek station, police blocked the way – two officers, one man and one woman, smoking. Emergency lights in the distance. I’d got as close as I could. Now I had to find a way home. The quickest way would have been past the American Embassy, but a Belgian soldier holding a machine gun made it clear that was out of the question, so I rode against light traffic on the other side of the boulevard. At a traffic light a young woman looked up from her phone. We exchanged sad smiles. ‘We’re all in the same mess,’ she said, in an accent that could’ve been Italian. ‘I’m waiting for my dad. He’s coming from Liège to get me. I came to Brussels for a job interview this morning. That’s where I was. Were you able – hold on. Papa? … Oui, où?’ She looked up at me. ‘Do you know where Place Flagey is?’ I pointed down Chaussée d’Ixelles. ‘Thank you. Be careful!’
Back home the emails piled up. Brother in Ohio. Friends from Michigan to Mauritania. Neighbours on holiday in Thailand, on business in China. I checked the news. At least 34 dead from two explosions at the airport and one at Maelbeek station. Terror alert level 4. Stay at home, the authorities advised. The prime minister called for ‘calme et à la solidarité’.
On 13 November 2015, Brussels’s problem – a dysfunctional government incapable or unwilling to keep tabs on potential terrorists returning from Syria – became Paris’s problem. This morning, Paris’s problem – terrorist attacks – became Brussels’s problem. The berets are off and the helmets on.
Read more in the London Review of Books