It’s more real than 9/11, a friend said, and that it is when the screen you idly log onto reads: L. has marked herself safe in the Brussels Explosions. T. has marked himself safe in the Brussels Explosions. P. has marked himself safe. M., A., S…. safe, safe, safe… and the names keep coming.
“There were explosions in Brussels!” you call, still stuffy with sleep and the cold in your head. You do a quick Google search. “In the airport!”
Your spouse is slow to hear or understand, busy preparing for the family visit. They leave Ohio tomorrow, for an overnight, Brussels-bound flight. Your sudden announcement holds no shape or mass until: “At least 16 dead.”
“Oh my God.”
It’s more real than 9/11 because that was college. Back when “quarter-century” sounded old, and that was years ahead besides. Your liberal university town still felt like some extended sleep-away camp, and you didn’t know anyone living in New York City, or even what those buildings were exactly used for before they smoked and crumbled on live TV.
“They’re not coming.”
“Who’s not coming?” asks your four-year-old daughter, who flits through the kitchen not waiting for an answer (for once, luckily). Because even though you still feel 25, the truth adds a decade and two small kids, one of whom has been counting down the sleeps until her two small cousins arrive. Just two to go.
You could hop on the faster train down the street and be at the Brussels airport in 15. Or you could have until three Belgian jihadists killed 11 there, injured hundreds, and opened the roof. And the head cold that’s fogging up your clockwork confuses names so that it takes a full day to realize which subway stop was bombed. Not Molenbeek, where some of the Paris attackers grew up, but Maalbeek, where your friends would likely have emerged on their way to report on the European Union, at around that hour, right? But they marked themselves safe, right? Oh my God.
The family’s not coming. Your two small nieces in Ohio find out from classmates about “bad men in Belgium” and have trouble sleeping for fear of them, and the adults watch the news for too long, longer than they wanted to, just to remind themselves why they don’t get to come see you now, why they’re lucky.
And when you tell your kids, you see the break in your daughter’s eyes and in her chin when she finds out that Easter won’t bring her cousins, they won’t be coming to her house. And you have to tell her something about the bad men, before she finds out from classmates, too. She wants to know that your house is safe, that your town is safe. And when she stops crying, you talk about what nice things she can still do for Easter. She nods, and she wants to draw it. She colors pink fire around the first drawing of Easter eggs, but after that the drawings and their eggs are safe. And you almost wonder if you were more hurt by her pain than she was. But there’s a sweetness to the pain, because it means you’re all still right here. Safe.
It’s a tenuous kind of “safe,” and it falters with every new story about a friend of a friend in critical condition or the woman from the parish with the two small kids, who will be ok, the burns weren’t too bad, but do keep them in your prayers.
It falters when a dear friend tells you his dream about shooting the airport terrorists, sniper-style, except the gun he aims is a child’s toy. It falters unexpectedly when grief for unknown dead interrupts the solitude of a shower.
But you’re grateful, and more grateful because this nearness heightens what safety you can claim. And it helps you grieve the unknown because they were almost yours. They were yours, almost.
No. They were yours. And you finally start to understand that solidarity phrase, “We are all… Charlie, Paris, Brussels...” That used to sound a bit off, an outsider’s false claim — some tragical appropriation — but the nearness of this attack changes it’s effect. Now it’s touching. Because from these seats, it’s pretty damn easy to see how you might have stood beside those suitcases, though you’re not Brussels, not from Brussels, and not even Belgian — but you’re here, nonetheless.
And from this viewpoint, it does feel sad, and wrong, that “We are all Ankara, Syria, Pakistan, Ivory Coast…” don’t make the list. It’s sad, and wrong: the relative indifference you felt before realizing the bombed subway stop wasn’t in the poor, Muslim neighborhood, but instead where your friends or you might have more easily stood. Of course we grieve our known and dear more than foreign strangers, and those even more foreign strangers.
But you’re grateful for the nearness of this attack, because it means you live in Belgium, near Brussels, and that means daily communion with foreign, and even more foreign, strangers and friends: from the majority of Flemish around you, to your friends from Sicily, Oslo, Prague…, to the Syrian storekeeper whose kids are the same age as yours and who always asks about them, to the young woman in hijab who stopped you in that park because she had to tell you how beautiful your baby is and who was overjoyed to hold her, to the amiable Moroccan market owner who always finds some reason to give you something for free and who got so furious last week when a young man cut in front of you at his register that he swore (in English, for your benefit), because is it too much to ask to live in a civilized society?
And you have to conclude, following these too-real explosions, what you already knew: that the explosions during 9/11 were more than a television event affecting other people. And the explosions in Ankara, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, and even the unfathomable ongoing atrocities in Syria… all become a little more real, too. And a little more yours.