Why Belgium?

I don’t know much about Belgium. But it is extraordinary the way so many terror plots have the country at their heart – or at least some passing acquaintance. There’s a list here.

But why? Well Tony Judt wrote this in the NYRB way back in 1999. Plenty of people have been flagging it up on Twitter. Is it relevant? Is it accurate? I have no idea, but it seems worth reading.

Even the transportation system has a curiously decentered, self-deprecating quality. A major junction in the trans-European network, Brussels has three railway stations; but none of them is a terminus—trains to Brussels go to and through all three stations. The “Central Station” is, symptomatically, the least of them—obscure, featureless, and buried underground beneath a heap of concrete. As with its stations, so with the city itself: Brussels has successfully effaced itself. Whatever “there” was once there has been steadily dismantled. The outcome is an unaspiring anonymity, a sort of underachieving cultural incognito of which Sarajevo and Jerusalem can only dream.

But the scandals and their shadow won’t go away, with their dead politicians, dead prosecutors, dead children, escaped criminals, incompetent and corrupt police forces, and a widespread sense of neglect and abandonment. Last summer it seemed to many that the Belgian state could no longer perform its primary mission: the protection of the individual citizen. Swayed by political and economic forces beyond its control, caught between federalist decentralization and uncoordinated, incompetent government agencies without resources or respect, Belgium is the first advanced country truly at the mercy of globalization in all its forms. It is beginning to dawn on more than a few Belgians that in progressively dismantling and disabling the unitary state in order to buy off its internal critics, they may have made a Faustian bargain.

As we enter the twenty-first century, and an uncertain era in which employment, security, and the civic and cultural core of nations will all be exposed to unprecedented and unregulated pressures beyond local control, the advantage will surely lie with countries whose governments can offer some guarantees of protection and a sense of cohesion and common purpose compatible with the preservation of civil and political liberties. So Belgium does matter, and not just to Belgians. Far from being a model, it may be a warning: we all know, at the end of the twentieth century, that you can have too much state. But Belgium may be a useful reminder that you can also have too little.


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