I have a confession: After hearing of the Brussels attacks this morning, riding my bike past parliament to the The Hague Central and seeing a dozen Royal Marrechaussee armed with automatic weapons, and hearing that Hoofddorp station near Amsterdam had been shut due to an ‘incident’, I got on to a train. A young Middle Eastern man sat next to me, speaking in Arabic on the phone. He was wearing a thick coat, and had a big square bag between his legs. And for a moment I felt a flash of fear. I thought about the possibility of a bomb being in the bag, and images of Brussels ran through my mind. The moment passed very quickly, and I felt stupid and guilty, not believing that I really had been worried for a minute. But I did feel fear, for a brief moment.
Now I’m a well-educated person. I study the Middle East, and like to think that I have a very calm and realistic view of Islam as a faith like any other, as well as the low actual threat of terrorism. I’m not prone to stress or worry, and very rarely feel unsafe anywhere. I know that all but a tiny minority of Muslims hate Islamic State as much as anyone else, and I think that anyone blaming them for IS is a fool. But that didn’t make any difference to the fact that for the first time I can ever remember, I looked at an ordinary guy about my age and felt a moment of fear.
While I am saying that this fear is totally irrational and illogical, it is completely human. We’re not instinctively rational beings. When a bomb goes off in a city you’ve visited, in an airport environment you know so well, nervousness is understandable. The images are so visercal and take place in a setting so close to our own daily life. It is true that fear is what terrorists want, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be afraid.
But what moments like this call for is rising above that fear. Recognising it, feeling it, then choosing to not let it colour how we treat others or look at our neighbours. And what I’m mainly afraid of now is the reaction of those who do let themselves be led by fear. There are many in Europe who have already let fear dictate their reaction to refugees and immigration, and this will only make things worse. The nationalist and fearmongering politicians like Le Pen, Wilders and Viktor Orban will latch on this new attack and hold it up as an example of why we should close our borders and throw up the walls – appealing to the worst of our human nature, rather than our best.
So we can feel the fear, and we can feel the anger – but we can’t let it guide us. As hard as it may be, we need to choose to go on with our lives – and firmly reject the easy answers of fear and hatred.