Most of Western Europe awoke this morning to the nicest spring day of the year so far, but it was not long before once again dark clouds would hang over one of its capitals. Around breakfast time here in London, news began to break on various news platforms, first of reports of smoke from a possible fire in the main airport of Brussels/Bruxelles at Zaventem, gradually escalating to reports of a full-scale terror attack in the departures hall, centered around the check-in counter for American Airlines and Brussels Airlines.
Numbers of casualties began to rise, then the news that there were several deaths, then further news and pictures of an attack on the urban underground in Brussels, at Maelbeeek Metro station, very near to the buildings of the European institutions. We began to hear how the Belgian capital was locked down; the Eurostar channel-tunnel train service from London was suspended as was the high-speed Thalys continental service to Paris and Amsterdam.
In London our own Gatwick Airport was closed for a short time without any specific information about why; London’s several other airports remained open but with a big increase, once again, of visible armed Met officers. Bristol airport in the west of England was also closed until 6 p.m. on Wednesday, with no specific reason given. In Brussels itself, no transport moved; the authorities told everyone to stay put while those already at work in the European institutions were barred from leaving their offices. The massive Berlaymont building, base for much of the E.U. bureaucracy, was scheduled for a police-led evacuation at 4 p.m. local time, to be followed by a security sweep.
By lunchtime it had become more clear; there have been three bombing attacks and that at least 20 had died in the metro attack to add to the 14 so far counted at the airport. Injuries, many of them serious, are said to number around 200. A further sign of the times was how quickly social media’s latest faculty, allowing you to post your status as “safe” if resident in the affected area, became active. In the early afternoon, the so-called Islamic State/ISIL used the same social media through a news agency, AMAQ, known to be close to them, to announce that “Islamic State fighters [sic] carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday,” confirming earlier reports that gunshots and a man’s voice shouting in Arabic were heard just before the airport blasts. Police reports began to emerge than one weapon could have been a suitcase-bomb. Then unconfirmed reports began to emerge that security services had disabled a third bomb found at Zaventem airport.
Most people had probably breathed a sigh of relief after the arrest of the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, by Belgian police with the unfortunate cry of “we’ve got him,” four days previously. But most western European capital city dwellers, certainly most of us here in London, know very well that this was not the end of the terrorist threat and that further attacks might well happen. It was made known that Abdeslam “was planning further attacks from Brussels.” You just feel that it’s more likely than not.
For Londoners, TV pictures of the aftermath of the subway blast in particular bring back uncomfortable memories of our own 7/7 attacks of over a decade ago. Here in Britain, some media carried reports that planners were preparing for up to nine assaults. “We used to plan for three simultaneous attacks but Paris has shown that you need to be ready for more than that. We are ready if someone tries with seven, eight, nine, 10,” an unnamed government minister told the Sunday Times. Further, possibly controlled, reports have trickled out that the U.K.’s elite Army Special Forces unit and specialist officers from the Metropolitan Police in London are on standby outside the capital.
We live in difficult and rapidly changing times. Our continent is ailing, hurting badly. There is political unrest as the European project struggles for breath. The refugee crisis is beyond any doubt the biggest humanitarian tragedy on this continent since at least the Second World War and arguably the biggest ever. No clear solution is visible yet. Greece’s economic problems have not gone away, merely dropped out of the headlines and the forthcoming knife-edge ballot on British membership continues to erode confidence in the European Union’s future viability.
Now, not one of our capitals, or even any of our major cities, feels safe. Now, evil is present. Now, it stares us in the face. Holy Week is when we must confront evil, stare back at it. Evil, and what looked like its triumph, was what surrounded Jesus in that first Holy Week. His innocent life came to a violent end, too, like over 30 people in Belgium this morning. He refused to return evil with anything other than good; incredibly, he even found it within himself to forgive a real criminal, perhaps only seconds before breathing his last. That was how he stared back at evil. He knew no other way.
We all need to know how such a gesture was even possible; then learn from it. St. Ignatius, at the point in his Spiritual Exercises when we contemplate the Passion, Holy Week, encourages us to pray for a particular grace: that we should “ask for sorrow with Christ in sorrow, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and deep grief because of the great affliction that Christ endures for me.”
We can ask for those. We can and probably do feel something of these realities in our hearts, our souls, whenever we witness the suffering of someone else, particularly an innocent person; that is only human and not unusual. Most people are basically good—we must not forget—but the good world God made is streaked with evil, smeared with innocent blood. The deep compassion and empathy that St. Ignatius invites us to ask for comes only from the heart of God; we can’t bring that about by our own efforts because it goes beyond our limited human capabilities, as Jesus found in those final Calvary moments. It’s what enables us to imitate Christ. We sometimes call it grace. And grace gives us a strength in awful moments that nothing else can.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.