This morning, Allison Pearson of the Telegraph tweeted the following:
“Brussels, de facto capital of the EU, is also the jihadist capital of Europe. And the Remainers dare to say we’re safer in the EU! #Brexit”
The first statement is, sadly, true – Belgium has the highest rate in Europe of citizens leaving to join ISIS, per capita, and the links between the troubled Molenbeek suburb and violent islamism have been widely covered since it was linked to the Paris attacks last year. The fact that one of the alleged organisers of those attacks was able to hide out in the city for 126 days suggests that it plays host not only to a small number of people willing to commit murderous acts of terrorism, but a wider network of people who are willing to provide sanctuary and succour to those men and women of violence.
On an ordinary day, at an ordinary time, Pearson’s tweet might have picked up a few retweets, a few supportive comments and a small amount of criticism, and the world would have moved on. But it isn’t an ordinary day – her remarks were tweeted 45 minutes after two bombs exploded in Brussels’ Zaventem airport, killing at least 11 people and wounding many more.
In that context, the tweet was tasteless – an attempt to make a political point on the back of a terrorist attack when its victims were still bleeding and dying. It should be said that she wasn’t alone in treating these awful events as an opportunity, and some on both sides did so: the editor of the pro-EU InFacts website was quick to declare the attacks a “reason to stay in [the] EU, not quit”, while Cotswolds Lib Dems argued that “We must stay united #StrongerIn”.
Whether you buy the truth of any of these arguments is irrelevant to the initial point. Matters of timing and taste do matter, particular when lives are lost, which is why such opportunism is both wrong and insensitive.
But it’s also human nature to interpret events in the world around us. Arguably, the more extreme and unpleasant an event, the more justified we are in seeking to understand how it came to pass and how a repeat might be avoided.
That’s why, in the coming days, voters, politicians, commentators and experts will be quite right to enquire about the Brussels attacks and to reflect on what they tell us about matters of politics, policy and government.
If, as seems almost certain, the attacks are the work of islamist extremists, then we must review our counter-extremism strategies to find out why this poisonous ideology continues to survive even under intense scrutiny.
If, as is possible, the bombers had some support from a wider network, we have to interrogate our counter-terrorism policies and practices to work out how such a network remained at liberty to murder civilians.
If, as Pearson was perhaps implying, the attackers made use of the EU’s open borders to move about freely, then people will justifiably factor that in to their view of those policies.
If, as the French Government confirmed happened with some of the Paris attackers, any of the people responsible were able to get into Europe under the cover of the migration crisis, then the already furious debate on that subject will certainly intensify a great deal.
There are a hundred ifs which could apply – each will be rightly explored and each answered. Where a theory or a fear transitions from an “if” into a confirmed fact, the implications will be teased out, and they will become a matter for political debate. Doing so isn’t irresponsible, unfair or opportunistic – it is the responsibility of a free and open society that we properly consider and debate the realities which confront us, particularly when they relate to something as severe as an act of terrorist murder. Refusing to do so would be irresponsible and dangerous.
Pearson may regret the tweet (or she may not, depending on her objective, as it seems to have gained her a lot of new followers), and her decision to post it when she did was reprehensible. Certainly her instant conclusion that this relates to the EU was simply unfounded at this stage. It’s entirely possible that facts may come to light which confirm her view, but equally the timeline may yet disprove it. For example, we know all too well that Britain, like Belgium, has developed a serious problem of home-grown violent extremism without any assistance required from the EU’s undoubtedly flawed policies.