No Man is an Island

The news has always been a divisive thing. On the one hand we all want to feel connected, to know what is going on ‘out there’ in the world. On the other we do sort of suspect that the version of life we are spoonfed by the media is skewed and distorted like a picture taken through a fish eye lens.

Is it getting worse? That’s hard to say. But my own experience as a Brussels resident who has been reading news reports from the UK media on the recent bombs at Zaventem airport and the metro would suggest it is – or at least that the media is as sensationalist as ever.

Both to loved ones and idiots on social media I have defended this city I love, which, if you believed every BBC news report you read you would think was besieged by jihadists on every street corner. Contrary to public media opinion, who take great delight in filming some dickhead reporter roaming the streets of ‘jihadi capital of Europe’, Molenbeek (incidentally also the suburb in which I work), or the use of water cannons against a small group of self-declared fascists downtown, it is still possible to walk down the street here without the need for police protection and an armoured vehicle.

The thing I love most about Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is people’s resilience; their ability to stay clear-headed and articulate in a crisis. And also, as the police cat food Twitter episode so clearly demonstrated, their sense of humour.

Though I will always love it, increasingly I feel glad I left the UK, and am experiencing life on the ‘outside.’ Because when you are inside the Kingdom we ironically still call ‘United’ it is frighteningly easy to adopt the media’s attitude to issues such as terrorism; to become closed-minded and biased without even realising it, due to the diet of twisted information you are fed by power-hungry media outlets and politicians.

If you listen to the likes of Boris we are far better off out of Europe, away from all these nasty jihadis. Raise the drawbridge! Keep Britain safe! What good can Europe do us? Look at the mess France and Belgium are in! Though I have neither the political knowledge nor inclination to address these tenuous arguments here, I will highlight one thing, a poem by John Donne, entitled ‘No Man is an Island’:

Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s 
Or of thine own were: 
Any man’s death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind, 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

Whether we are part of Europe or not (and I personally believe we should be), none of us is an island. We must stand together in the face of terrorism and not let it divide us, by faith or for political gain. The media and politicians have ulterior motives. It is for us, the ‘normal people’, to look past those, to look past religion, past race and past hatred;  to look into our own hearts. Because it is only there we can find the good, the pure and the true; and understand that love is the only answer there is.

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The Motions

And so, here we are again. Mere weeks after the first ‘Brussels Lockdown,’ we are in the midst of another one. Only this time it’s different. This time our fears have been realised. This time the carnage that was originally predicted has happened. This time there have been deaths (over 30 at the time of writing, but with many more critically ill in hospital); at the airport, on the metro. Two places where we most want to feel safe, but no longer can.

One of the three terrorists from the airport is still at large. Sirens blare on every street corner. Stony faced soldiers stand watch over frightened pedestrians. No matter how much we don’t want to be, we are afraid. And we are angry. But alongside our fear and anger is something else, something far more unsettling: the total absence of shock. I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning to see my phone going crazy with messages from concerned loved ones, I instinctively knew what had happened. And I wasn’t surprised. Not in the least.

Thankfully I had stayed at home ill (the only time in my life that I will ever be grateful for a tummy bug), which meant I hadn’t taken my usual route to work via the metro. Instead of being physically caught up in the chain of sickening events I therefore watched the horror unfold on the news and social media, where the vile reactions of people like Trump and Hopkins turned my stomach.

Today, as a new day dawned, I still felt numb. And I still do. The outpouring of sentiment from around the world is fitting for the victims, but no amount of brightly coloured monuments will bring them back. And sentiment alone will not address the threat that we are facing – which, let’s be clear, is far more than a group of radicalised people on the rampage in the name of their twisted and hate-fuelled ideology.

We are as threatened by the ignorant, yet terrifyingly prevalent, attitudes of the Trumps’ and Hopkins’ of this world as we are by the terrorists themselves. In the battle between love and hate, hate is gaining ground. But it will never win, because for every ignorant, hate-filled person there are a thousand more who can not only see the truth but whose hearts are fit to burst with love. Yes, LOVE; the one emotion that the people who are trying to threaten our freedom are incapable of feeling, and the only thing that can unite us in the face of such unspeakable terror.

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Further Thoughts from Brussels

Yesterday was tough.  After three days of ‘lockdown’ in the city of Brussels it was announced the terror threat level would stay at four for another week, with the metro remaining closed on Tuesday and re-opening gradually from Wednesday. I doubt I speak only for myself when I say this was scant comfort. The world has been watching us for days now and we, in response, have moved from stoicism to humour to frustration. I hadn’t even registered how obsessively I had been checking the news and social media for updates until R pointed it out to me, along with the obvious fact such behaviour is neither productive nor healthy.

I was in London when the 7/7 bombs went off, and that day is etched upon my memory. I have friends who lost friends that day, and what I will always remember is the eerie quietness of the streets as tens of thousands of people trudged in silence out of central London. I have always considered myself to be stoic in the face of terrorism, staunch in my refusal to change how I live because to do so would be to let ‘them’ win. But I can’t deny the recent Paris bombings and tense situation here in Brussels have shaken me to the core.

I’m ashamed to admit I have felt fear, pure and unadulterated, at the thought of resuming my daily commute on the metro. I’m also ashamed to admit I have had dark moments when I have felt quite hopeless about the future of humanity. I realise now the constant flow of information – and, in many cases, sensationalist misinformation – has not been helping me at all, and so today – another day of working from home – I’m going to step away from the news. R said to me yesterday: “Look outside, at all the people in the bars and restaurants. That’s what’s real. Not all of the crap you see reported in the news.”

And he’s right. We have to carry on as normally as we can. We cannot be cowed into living life in the shadows. That’s what they want us to do. It is unsettling to be in this situation but we have to hope it will end soon, and believe there is more good in the world than evil. Because there is. There really is.

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Update from Brussels

Another day dawns in Brussels, and with it the news that police raids in the centre of the city last night – which saw people in the surrounding area either evacuated from, or trapped inside, hotels and restaurants – led to the arrests of sixteen terror suspects. None of these was Salah Abdeslam, suspected gunman in the Paris attacks who subsequently fled to Brussels, possibly with the suicide vest he did not, for reasons unknown, detonate in Paris. None of those arrested last night were found with weapons, which means the stash of arms with which the terrorists are planning an attack on Brussels are, like Abdeslam, still at large.

It’s been a strange couple of days here in the European Union’s capital, with most people heeding government advice to stay indoors and avoid public places. But while we understand the serious nature of the threat, how long can this lockdown really go on for? The Belgian economy surely cannot afford to take the hit of many more days without people spending money in its capital city. And with each day that passes the tourist trade will be suffering untold damage, as people cancel trips in fear of being affected by a Paris style attack. And yet, the strange thing is, despite feeling like we are in the throes of a major disaster, nothing has actually happened. It’s like having a guillotine over our heads and waiting for it to drop. Unnerving, to say the least.

Aside from anything else the culture of fear that has begun to develop feels very much like it is playing into the terrorists’ hands. As one window sign spotted on a Brussels street proclaimed, panic is what they want us to feel. And to some extent it’s working. That’s not to say most Brusselites aren’t being stoic in the face of all that’s unfolding. I for one made a point of attending my writing group meet up yesterday rather than give in to the fear. But today I’ll be working from home, and much as I hate to admit it I am now considering my options where my daily commute is concerned, out of worry about taking the metro.

We can but hope the situation will be resolved, or at least diffused (if you’ll excuse the possibly quite inappropriate pun) soon, so that we might all go back to living a normal existence. Recent events do, however, make one wonder-will we ever feel entirely safe again?

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Thoughts from Brussels

Exactly one week ago we woke to the news that 129 people had been murdered in cold blood by terrorists in Paris. These were ordinary people like you or I, who were letting their hair down after a busy week, enjoying a few drinks, dinner or a concert on Friday night. But the terrorists had other ideas.

It has since transpired that one of the masterminds behind the Paris attack came from the Molenbeek district in Brussels, one of the most deprived areas in Belgium, which is purported to be an easy target for Islamic State (ISIS) militants trying to recruit young Muslims. It is also, incidentally, where my office is located.

Belgium is coming under fire for its lax security measures where tracking terrorists is concerned. For a small country a disproportionate number of people have been recruited to ISIS and left to fight for them abroad – indeed some reports claim Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation –between 350 and 550, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims.

These are worrying times, made more worrying still for those of us residing in Brussels by the news this morning, exactly one week on from the news from Paris, that the threat level in Brussels has been raised to very serious, with metro services suspended all weekend, concerts cancelled and a warning not to go to public places.

I feel conflicted by this latest threat. A part of me is defiant and wants to continue exactly as I always would, because to do otherwise, to change our way of life, is to show them they are affecting us, to let them win. But obviously there is also a part of me that is concerned for my welfare, for my partner’s and friends’ welfare. A portion of my daily commute involves taking the metro. Should I now avoid it, in case of an attack? Or carry on taking it and trust in the security forces (and statistics that would probably say my likelihood of being caught up in an attack is small) to protect me from harm?

At any rate, I can’t help but feel the terrorists would be stupid to do anything now the threat has been raised. Far better to wait until it has subsided, until people are less scared and come out of their shells to resume normal life, and do it then. We must remain vigilant. But, beyond that, what can we do?

The bigger issue does of course tug at my heartstrings every day. The ignorance, bigotry and racism shown by so many in the face of the refugee crisis is not only dividing communities but playing directly into the hands of the terrorists. I am not so naive to believe this situation can be resolved purely with love. Sadly now we have let it develop this far the only way it can be addressed is with more violence and bloodshed. But I do believe it is essential that people are tolerant, and that they seek to be informed about the situation instead of believing the hateful bile reported in the tabloids.

In the West, until now, we have been largely protected from the terrible things that have been happening across the world for decades – many of which were, ironically, brought about by the actions of our own governments. Our hands are not clean, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are, that what is happening now in Europe is nothing to do with us. We funded terrorism for our own economic gain, and it backfired. Now those terrorists have become strong, and they are striking at the heart of the freedom we hold dear. They are also, let’s not forget, driving terrified people from their countries, terrified people who now reside at refugee camps across Europe. These people are like you or me. They are not, as the idiotic Republican hatemongers in the US would have us believe, ‘rabid dogs’ seeking to kill us all.

We started this, it is our responsibility to finish it. And beyond the guns and rhetoric, it is all of our responsibility to bring about a society that is centred around tolerance, hope and love. If we can succeed in this the world, and humanity as a whole, may yet be saved.

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7/7

Ten years ago today, fifty two people lost their lives in London when terrorists targeted three packed commuter trains and a bus during rush hour traffic. I have a hangover to thank for not being on a train that went through Edgware Road that morning. Instead I drove to work, arriving late. When the news broke I tried frantically to contact my then boyfriend, whose journey to work took him perilously close to where the bus bomb had gone off, in Tavistock Square. But the phone lines were jammed by other frantic Londoners trying desperately to locate their loved ones, and it took over an hour to confirm that he was safe, more time still to do a head count of my friends. I remember it like it was yesterday; the panic, the sense of helplessness. It was like watching a disaster movie in real time, where the ‘stars’ could well be people you know – people you love. Just awful.

There’s something wonderfully resilient about Londoners. Even in a crisis they stand defiant. But that day tested the mettle of even the hardiest of the Capital’s inhabitants. It was a threat to everything they – we – stood for. And whilst there is, of course, the argument that our political leaders are responsible for the rise of the terrorism that now threatens our society – having provided arms and funding to the very people who now carry out these atrocities – those people who lost their lives in the 7/7 attacks, those who were injured, and the many more who will be killed and injured by terrorist attacks in the future, were, and are, innocent victims.

After work that day, at a loss for what to do and not wanting to be alone, we went to Notting Hill to try and process what had happened with friends. For as long as I live I will never forget the eerie silence as hundreds of Londoners walked past the window with their heads down; contemplating, as we were, the fact it could so easily have been them.

RIP.

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Stop Fighting Hate with Hate – Try Love Instead

As tempting as it is to wallow in depression at the future of humanity after today’s horrific massacre of satirical cartoonists in Paris, to do so would achieve one thing and one thing only: It would mean the terrorists have won.

Whilst it’s heartening to see the numerous messages of support for the victims (and indeed for freedom of speech itself) on social media, as well as the hastily organised rallies across Europe and the newly created cartoons in response to the tragedy, less heartening is the hashtag #killallmuslims, currently trending on Twitter.

It is sadly inevitable that the events of today will lead to reprisals against innocent Muslims, as well as the usual torrent of ignorant comments about religion being the root cause of all evil. But as British journalist Emily Davis succinctly put on Twitter in the aftermath of the incident: “Islamic extremists. Not Islam. They are different entities and shouldn’t be casually associated. Terror has no religion.”

Terrorism in the name of religion is NOT religion, but rather extremism based on a warped perception of it. As someone who has grown up in a household with religious leanings, I have witnessed the positive side of having faith, such as the sense of community and charity that it fosters. Blaming religion in all its forms for this kind of evil, extremist activity is almost as ignorant as the terrorists themselves. Not only that, it instigates a misguided campaign of hate against innocent people who are merely trying to follow their religion in the name of peace.

If only we could all learn to practice tolerance and acceptance, we might yet be able to pull ourselves back from the brink of what could well be the end of civilisation as we know it. Hate is not the way to fight hate. The only thing that will defeat it is love.

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Restoring Faith

In a week that has seen a siege in a cafe in Sydney’s central business district end with three dead, yet another senseless gun massacre in the US leaving six dead, and, only today, over 140 students and teachers murdered in cold blood in Pakistan, it is harder than usual to stay optimistic about the human condition. Why, when we have so much potential to be peaceful and loving individuals, do so many willingly walk the path of hate? Not only that, but choose the most innocent of all people as their victims? 

But amidst the horrors of the past few days some buds of hope and goodwill have slowly begun to emerge:

1. First came the hashtag #illridewithyou, created by a woman in Australia in response to the siege, to encourage her fellow countrymen and women to support all those who felt frightened to travel alone for fear of Islamophobic reprisals by ignorant people who fail to realise the vast majority of people who follow Islam are no more terrorists than they are. Before long the campaign went viral, with people all over the country declaring their pride to be residents of a place that refuses to tolerate Islamophobia and prejudice in all of its forms. And good on them.

2. The next ray of light comes in the form of the good folk who came up with the concept for the Casserole Club, which encourages people to make an extra meal when they cook each week to share with a lonely elderly neighbour. Friends of the Elderly also gets a mention for its fantastic Be a Friend campaign, which urges people to do small and easy things each day to help reduce the loneliness of the elderly. This was borne out of a survey the charity conducted which found that people do want to help, but often don’t know how, so both their campaign and the Casserole Club are wonderful ways to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Just fantastic.

3. The Real Junk Food Project in Leeds has fed 10,000 people with 20,000 tonnes of unwanted but perfectly edible food, ticking every box in the book where helping the homeless, the hungry and the environment is concerned. Bravo to the founder, Adam Smith. The world needs more like him.

4. When this student realised she had lost her bank card after a night out in Preston a homeless man named Robbie gave her his last three pounds so she could safely get a taxi home. In return, she has started a campaign to raise money for a deposit on a flat for Robbie, who has been homeless for seven months through no fault of his own. So far she has raised £9k by asking for £3 donations in support of her living rough for 24 hours.

It’s a utopian ideal to think the evil in the world will ever be entirely stamped out, but as long as people like the ones I have described above exist and have the opportunity to share and grow their genuinely philanthropic goals with their communities and the wider world, I believe there will at least be a few very good reasons to keep faith in humanity.

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Generation Y: We’re not apathetic, we’re just overwhelmed

Last night, after watching the news, an overwhelming surge of sadness washed over me. There are so many dreadful things happening in the world – bombings in Gaza, terrorism in Syria, war and famine in Sudan, Ebola disease in West Africa, irreversible climate change…the list goes on and on – that sometimes it’s hard to feel positive about the future of the human race. On top of these issues, in the UK we also have untrustworthy politicians who are currently (on top of many other questionable decisions) rushing Big Brother style privacy laws through parliament. The result? We, ‘the People,’ feel powerless and trapped. And none, perhaps, more so than my generation.

Today at work a colleague, herself a generation older than me, was talking about last night’s Newsnight programme, which had a feature on ‘Generation Y,’ as today’s 18-30s are collectively known. The feature discussed the differences between my generation (Y) and hers (Generation X), one being the fact we don’t fight for causes by campaigning in the streets in the same way that many of those who grew up in the ‘welfare state era’ did. One Generation X spokesperson said she didn’t believe this was because Generation Y are apathetic about causes and only interested in being a ‘selfie generation,’ as many older people might posit, but rather that the political and economic issues being faced today seem so big they are impossible to solve. Generation Y have seen uprising fail time and again (Iraq War anyone?), and we’ve lost all faith in the political system to do what’s right. Even if we do stand up to be counted, we don’t believe our voices will be heard, so the collective feeling is ‘why bother?’

We are the first generation to be brought up with the internet, the consequences of which have been far reaching, and both positive and negative. As a Generation Y spokesperson said on Newsnight, we have a thirst for individualism that derives from constant online comparisons, and a drive to be self-reliant rather than state-reliant. We are flooded with information in a way that previous generations were not, and whilst this is liberating it is also, sometimes, quite debilitating. The internet has both connected and isolated us, and whilst social media has led to a level of inter-connectedness never previously imagined, many people feel lonelier than ever.

The rise of face to face gatherings like ‘swishing’ (clothes-swapping) parties (to name but one) shows that, despite embracing the digital age, Generation Y are trying to stay connected with their peers and local communities. Perhaps it’s through these types of initiatives, rather than by waving placards in the street, that we will make some small difference in the wider world we feel so powerless to change.

A final thought (and my own attempt at micro-activism) on Sudan. I have a personal connection, having visited Juba in South Sudan some years ago, and have been deeply saddened to read of the war and impending famine in the region. At the time of my visit in 2006 it was a fairly barren place. I stayed in one of the aid camps and saw little of the locals’ lives outside of the compound. But I do remember an overriding feeling of hope – that things would, and could, get better. Which is why it is so tragic to hear just how much worse they have got since my brief time there. Recent news reports have said there is a serious danger of extreme famine in the coming weeks, but there is no money to run a big advertising campaign to ask for funds. And so I close by asking anyone with a few pounds to spare to consider donating to this cause via World Vision.

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Choices

Yesterday I learned a valuable lesson: When you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders you’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself.

Bad things happen in the world – terrible, unforgivable things. It would be inhuman to never feel affected by them. But if you let your defences down too much they will burrow into your skin like maggots and take root in your soul.

Hate breeds hate like a cancer, and it’s precisely this type of disease that the terrorists and white supremacists have. Their disease is terminal; they’re too far gone to see the errors of their ways and the flaws in their thinking.

But the rest of us have a choice. We can let the hate seep into our consciousness and destroy us, or we can fight against it and tell ourselves life isn’t hopeless and that there’s much more goodness in the world than bad.

Internalising the world’s problems is, ultimately, pointless. If you want to make positive change then go ahead and make it, there’s nothing stopping you. But accept the boundaries within which that change is attainable. In this life we get back what we put in, so there’s little point in being negative. It’s bad for our hearts and bad for our health – and without our health how can we expect to achieve anything positive?

In the wake of this realisation I’ve decided not to read the papers or watch the news today, to step away from the perpetual misery and propaganda and just enjoy my own life; my work, my family, my book, my writing. Sometimes it gets too much to bear, the constant onslaught of negative reporting on the world’s plethora of problems (though this, of course, is a first world problem. I have the luxury of turning my back on them, whereas millions don’t; they live those problems every single day with no respite. Those problems are their lives, there is nothing else. This, too, is worth remembering).

My new mantra is this:

Focus on the things you can change, rather than worrying about the things you can’t.

Despite the bad things that happen in it and the ignorant people we share it with, the world is still a beautiful place. And for the short time we’re on this planet, we should at least try to enjoy it.