At the House of European History in Brussels, a long display cabinet sets out the forces that have shaped Europe through the centuries: philosophy, democracy, rule of law, ‘omnipresence of Christianity’, state terror, the slave trade, colonialism, humanism, the Enlightenment, revolutions, capitalism, Marxism, the nation state. For each, a historical image is matched with something contemporary: for philosophy, you get a bust of Socrates and a photograph of Žižek; for revolutions, Liberty Leading the People and the uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square; for the slave trade, iron shackles and a Banksy painting about child labour.
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.
Sleek, complacent Brussels takes its alfresco chocolate and beer and waffles in the early summer sunshine, untroubled by the European elections or a few anti-semitic murders. The bo-bo Sablon district, which hosts the Jewish Museum, scene of Saturday’s shootings, was thick with drinkers again twenty-four hours later; indeed, the gratification of a man interviewed by Flemish VTM Nieuws soon after the attacks remained undimmed when he learned that the TV crew was there because three people had just been shot dead about a hundred metres away. I went down there on Sunday evening. ‘Ah oui, j’en ai entendu parler,’ a young woman said absently. I’d given her directions to Petit Sablon, and said there were a lot of police were about because of the murders. Nothing much is meant by this indifference – it would no doubt have been the same had the victims been Arab or Chinese. Apathy is a great leveller.
When people ask why I left UK academe for Brussels, I usually say I came here to escape bureaucracy. Belgian universities are hardly free of red tape, but they seem much less bad than the UK, where commercialisation and endless government-monitored performance indices give rise to the bureaucratic version of the categorical imperative: that committees be treated never merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Still, the myth persists, and nowhere more so than in Britain, that Brussels as the EU capital pullulates with Eurocrats living high on the hog.