I was there the day of the attacks and in Sydney for the siege. Here’s what two acts of terrorism taught me about ‘moving on.’
It’s been about a month since 16 people were killed by a suicide bomber at Maelbeek station in Brussels, and on Monday, the city’s transit agency announced the station was fully back in service. A tribute has been installed in the form of a memorial wall; already, it has filled up with notes of support from commuters. This is what happens when the world suffers an unimaginable shock: We rush to find closure, to heal, to move on.
Believe me, I understand the impulse: I’ve been in close proximity to two devastating acts of terrorism. Statistically speaking, that’s incredibly unlikely. We’re 14 times more likely to die in our own bathtub than in a terrorist attack, according to international figures from data scientist Zeeshan Usmani. And though terrorism feels like a heightened threat in Western Europe these days, the region is much safer now than it was in the 1970s.
Yet, on March 22, I’d left Brussels mere hours before the bombings took place at the airport and the Maelbeek stop, which is located near several European government buildings. All told, more than 30 people were killed. And less than a year and a half earlier, in December 2014, the Sydney siege took place within view of my husband’s office and walking distance of our home. Customers inside a Lindt chocolate café were taken hostage by a man claiming to have placed bombs across the city. For 16 hours, the hostages were trapped until police stormed the café. Two people died.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The perceived rarity of certain occurrences ironically becomes the source of their power.[/quote]
What follows from shocks like these are outpourings of public grief flooding the airways, newspapers, and office hallways. Then the grief dries up as soon as a more exciting story comes along. Choose your poison: the death of Prince; Trudeau’s quantum computing knowledge; Beyoncé’s Lemonade; the Spotify hack. Who experiences visceral anguish from events that occurred weeks or months ago? But after hovering in the physical realm of atrocities, I find I’ve needed to linger on the aftermath for much longer than the 24/7 news cycle typically allows.
The only thing in this world that we can count on is that, as psychologist David G. Myers writes, “Astonishing unspecified events will occur.” But the perceived rarity of certain occurrences ironically becomes the source of their power. Perhaps that explains the unjustified disparity in responses between attacks on western nations and those on places like Lebanon and Pakistan, where such violence is perceived—wrongly or rightly—as normal.
Immediately after the Brussels attack, I couldn’t help but feel retroactively naïve. I’d been an enthusiastic tourist, gawking at the Royal Palace (where a dangerous abandoned suitcase was found), bouncing on my toes and admiring the architecture. I’d devoured chocolate waffles without a care, though I was well aware that one of the men responsible for the 2015 Paris attacks had been traced to Brussels in January. I gleefully posted an Instagram picture of a street art installation made of police tape; over the weekend, the same kind of tape was used to block off the entrance to Maelbeek station.
In an attempt to “get on with things,” I recently went back to Brussels for a few hours to take the Eurostar home to the United Kingdom. I think I needed the steady rhythm of a normal routine to feel safe. But I was greeted at the Brussels-Midi station by a dense sea of fluorescent police vests. I stopped to order a coffee before my next train and the power went out in the shop. It turned out to be an innocuous outage, but everyone nearby was shaken. I couldn’t drink my coffee.
Revisiting Brussels reminded me of my revisit to the Lindt café in Sydney in the weeks after the siege. They were both uncomfortable experiences. Rather than enjoy either visit, I spent most of my time telling myself that it was unlikely that anything similarly bad would happen, that lightning doesn’t strike twice. (Of course, lightning does occasionally strike twice, so I pretty much remained unconvinced.)
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The grief dries up as soon as a more exciting story comes along.[/quote]
The thing is, all that discomfort was bearable; such feelings are the “terror” in terrorism, aren’t they? If so, they weren’t so bad. In fact, embracing my authentic responses as they occurred—rather than shoving them aside in favor of more positive observations—helped me manage my fears. It’s unavoidable that I’ll fear my own death, and the death of someone close to me. Those deaths will happen, and they could happen in any number of ways. Statistically, cars and bees and bathtubs present more of a threat to me than terrorism. It’s absurd to think we can control the dangers that might come our way.
After Brussels, and Sydney before that, I admit I’ve felt a great deal of survivor’s guilt, which is probably ill-placed. But my distress is not. I firmly believe that it’s important to explore these feelings, to sit with them, rather than try to escape them. Yes, it’s affirming to rush to restore spaces decimated by senseless violence and get on with things. But healing takes time. And making room for distress is not necessarily about letting the terrorists win. Rather, pushing away our distress pushes away any chance we might have to learn something from our trauma.
Our pain can’t be fixed simply by hiring additional security guards or quickly revamping a metro station. This dizzying cycle of shock, grief, then forgetting, limits reflection, preventing us from appreciating what it means to endure after violence. To survive.