After a terror attack, Western governments react – or overreact – to show they’re doing something, but often make matters worse, as Belgium’s new layer of security outside Zaventem airport shows, writes Gilbert Doctorow.
By Gilbert Doctorow
In the days following the March 22 terrorist attack at Zaventem, Brussels’ international airport, the Belgian government was confronted with a walkout by airport security employees who resisted plans to restart services without any far-reaching changes to procedures. The employees demanded, in particular, provision for screening all passengers before they entered the airport building, which would require substantial increase in their own numbers.
It is a sad commentary that it was not the federal authorities but these public workers who stood up for the safety interests of the traveling public, while at the same time feathering their own nests.
Eventually, the government caved in and measures were agreed to. Temporary tent-like pavilions were erected out on the street in front of the airport buildings for the verification of passenger documentation and x-raying of their baggage before admittance to the terminal buildings for check-in. However, as is now apparent, the new infrastructure was poorly conceived and could only result in stupendous back-up of passengers in the open when put to the test of large flows.
Week by week in April, the percentage of flights restored to Zaventem from their diversion to Liege and Charleroi and other regional airports mounted. There was some reason to be optimistic. This past weekend, the airport administration announced a step-up to 80 percent of pre-attack passenger flows – and then the whole operation turned into chaos.
This week when I arrived at Zaventem at 6.30 am, two-and-a-half hours before my flight’s departure, I joined a crowd of some 1,000 hopeful passengers packed tightly together. We advanced at a snail’s pace along a 250-meter walk in the open air to reach the pavilion serving one set of airlines or to reach elevators to ascend three floors and wait for entry into the second pavilion serving other airlines.
The inconvenience and physical discomfort for all those in the line speaks for itself. And this was a morning of clear skies, unlike the rain and even hail that have descended on the mass of passengers exposed to the elements every day for the past week or more.
There were too few staff to explain who goes where. Moreover, such airport staff as circulated was clearly untrained, unable to answer the simplest questions. There was no one to assist the elderly, the infirm or passengers with babies and small children. The huddled mass might as well have been from a scene of Syrian refugees at the Macedonian-Greek border.
But that disgraceful discourtesy to the paying public is the least of what was offensive. What was utterly shocking was the inattention to our security. After all, that is supposedly what these new procedures were intended to provide.
By gathering us all together in the open, without chaperones, with armed military patrols only passing by occasionally as if on show, we were so many herring in a barrel. Any chap or gal wearing a suicide vest could easily have taken 500 lives with him or her, as opposed to the 16 lives that were lost in the attack of March 22, when passengers were spread out in the departure hall.
Not Up to It
Let us not mince words: the Belgian authorities are not up to their jobs, from the minister on down to the airport supervisors. They were incapable of doing the proper engineering. Even a fool would have known that putting in place four baggage X-ray machines in two pavilions to do the work that 20 highly automated inspection lines otherwise do inside the building after check-in was a formula for total breakdown at peak hours.
Lest anyone think these observations are unique to me, they were validated this evening by a front-page report on one of the country’s leading dailies, Le Soir. The president of Brussels Airlines is quoted as saying that by these new pre-screening procedures the authorities had shot themselves in the foot and made themselves the laughingstock of Europe. But his complaint was with the labor unions of the security staff, not with the airport administration and Ministry of Interior who should have known better than to implement such shortsighted measures.
Belgium’s complacent ruling elites must now be overruled by the international community protecting its own. Until then, foreigners should be put on notice: it is madness to fly into and out of Brussels National Airport-Zaventem.
In my analysis of root causes, I pointed to failures of Belgian political institutions as bearing prime responsibility for the attacks.
The nation’s two major language communities – French and Dutch – are forever trying to pull the blanket over to their respective side. To moderate these rivalries and keep the country together, certain structures were put in place step by step over the past 60 years. To outsiders, these measures appeared to be enlightened and, for many years, Belgium was a poster child of making democracy work in an ethnically diverse society, a model for countries in Central Africa and other complex societies in the Third World. However, behind this façade of progressivism, there were the dirty little secrets of unfortunate consequences.
Foremost among the innovative but offending institutions are proportional representation and power sharing through allocation of seats between representatives of the two communities. The excessive protection of minorities leads to government by coalition. The spoils of power are distributed between an unchanging cast of characters who are installed in office for their party loyalty and not for competence and who almost never face removal for their failures. The flip side of incompetence is institutionalized corruption.
Meanwhile, there is little coherence to government policies, which are instead a patchwork, with bits thrown off here and there as sops to the smaller factions.
Immediately after the March 22 attacks, Belgian media were full of reports about the tragic failures of policing and of the court system that led to the existence of a flourishing nest of terrorists in the very center of Brussels. These jihadists had been masterminding attacks going back to the Madrid train bombing a decade ago and were behind the November 2015 rampage of murder in Paris before they planned the assaults in Brussels in the name of the Islamic State.
Logically, the key ministers of Justice and Interior should have paid a price for the dereliction of their departments and personally for not heeding warnings coming from abroad well ahead of the terror attacks. Indeed, they offered to resign, but they were retained at the behest of Prime Minister Charles Michel, who insisted that the team should stick together to face the challenge before the nation resulting from their and their departments’ incompetence.
For those not in the know, suffice it to say that logic was never Charles Michel’s strong point; he was designated PM as a reward for his bilingualism and for being the son and heir to decades-long Reform Party leadership.
Ultimately another minister was forced out of office, Jacqueline Galant, who had the portfolio of Mobility (transport). No one could save her from her own impudent lies that the public and the press exposed. Galant had denied ever reading a European report from 2015 heavily critical of security arrangements at Belgian airports.
But her ouster came against the will of the “team” in power, which was reluctant to part with her for reasons of gender politics, Galant being the only female in the cabinet. Then there was also the little matter of finding a replacement that would not alter the balance between right and left, between French and Dutch.
And so it goes in the Kingdom of Belgium. But inevitably there are issues affecting the greater world where the game playing and incompetence must stop. A major international airport is one such case.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016