Murder at rush hour

 
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By Khaled Diab

A murder trial is delving into the mystery of why and how a young Belgian was stabbed to death for his MP3 player during rush hour in the capital’s busiest train station.

September 2008

In the UK, youth knife crime has received a lot of attention recently. A high-profile murder trial in Belgium has refocused public attention here on the issues of senseless violence, law and order, public apathy, immigration and racism.

The story, in this case, really does begin with a “regular Joe”. Joe van Holsbeeck was a popular, friendly and laid-back secondary school student looking forward to a bright future. On 12 April 2006, the 17-year-old and his best friend were waiting for a girlfriend in Brussels’s busiest transport hub, the Central Station.

At around 4.30pm, two teenagers approached them, ostensibly to ask for directions, and then demanded that Joe hand over his MP3 player. When Joe refused, one of them took out a knife and, amid the rush-hour crowds, stabbed him seven times, including a fatal blow to the heart, according to the court doctor.

Adam Giza, the killer, expressed remorse for his deed. “I am sorry for what happened. I didn’t want to kill him. I ask Joe’s parents, his brother, and [his best friend] Gil for forgiveness,” the 19-year-old said in his closing testimony.

On Tuesday, the jury found Giza guilty of violent theft which led to death but did not find that he intended to murder Joe. The dead boy’s father, Guy, described the verdict as “a slap in the face”. This reaction is understandable from the grieving parent of a young man who was described by his best friend as “someone you only meet once in your life”. Although justice has been served, this verdict is bound to add to the controversy surrounding the case.

That a young man should have died for a music player and that it happened in a busy public place caused public shock and outrage – not to mention, fear – at the time. Many people started calling for more policing and tougher punishment for offenders.

“We can’t continue to sweep minor offences under the carpet. We need to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach,” one resident told De Standaard. “There aren’t enough police agents? There are plenty of unemployed people around. Or why not use the army?”

The then Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that the government must step up its fight against juvenile crime. But others questioned this fixation on policing and wondered how it was possible that Joe was murdered in a train station through which some 200,000 commuters pass each day and how his attackers managed to get away?

Cardinal Daneels, the country’s top Catholic clergyman, condemned what he saw as society’s growing apathy and materialism.  “Hundreds witnessed the murder but no one did anything,” the archbishop said in his 2006 Easter sermon. “God asks us: where is your brother? Where is your Abel? We must not answer like Cain: ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”

Glenn Audenaert, a Brussels police chief, echoed the Cardinal’s message, albeit in less Biblical terms. “The police cannot be everywhere at once. Safety is a collective responsibility,” he said.

While the cardinal and the police chief have a point about public apathy, what they overlook is that, in our modern, well-oiled, mechanical societies, we expect the ‘system’ to take care of everything and many people find the potential consequences of intervention highly risky.

On a personal level, I find myself far more confident and comfortable about intervening in societies where collective intervention is something of a norm. It is far less threatening for the individuals involved if an entire group of people break up a fight or mediate a confrontation than if it is left to a lone passer-by. If enough people cared, then getting involved would become less a question of heroics and more one of good citizenship.

The trial has shed light on another possibility. The events occurred so fast on a busy platform that commuters had little time to notice, let alone react. Once the situation became clear, a Red Cross volunteer and a commuter quickly rushed to Joe’s aid. “For a moment, it seemed like he would regain consciousness,” she said in her testimony. “But then I saw him slip away again.” According to the court doctor, the wounds Joe suffered meant there was little anyone could do to save him.

But that still leaves the question unanswered of how it was that the two youth involved in the attack managed to run away, unchallenged, through the station and towards the town centre.

Right-wing commentators focused on the apparent ethnicity of the attackers, who were at first described as being of “North African” appearance.

“Belgian citizens realise… that the murder has nothing to do with ‘indifference in Belgian society,’ but everything with a group of North African youths terrorising Brussels,” Paul Belien wrote in that chronicle of far-right “enlightenment”, the Brussels Journal.

But Joe’s family refused to have their son’s plight used for xenophobic grandstanding. “Nobody should come to me, asking me to hate all Arabs,” his mother said in an interview with La Dernière Heure. “The youths who killed my son were scum… Scum can be found everywhere.”

Jean-Marie Dedecker, who has subsequently broken away from the Flemish Liberal Party to form a Flemish nationalist party centred around himself, claimed rather surreally: “You will sooner get punished for riding a bike without the lights on than for stealing a bike… Policemen look the other way in order to avoid being accused of racism… They behave in exactly the opposite way when they suspect decent citizens of some misdemeanour.”

The way Dedecker describes it, you’d think that Belgium was no country for middle-aged white men. But this has become a fairly typical tactic of victimhood used by bigots: “these brown people not only come here and steal our jobs, but also our rights and security”.

Some members of the far-right Vlaams Belang (VB) even went so far as to suggest that gun ownership laws should be relaxed to allow citizens to “defend” themselves.

The fact that Joe’s attackers turned out to be Polish Roma left the envoys of social intolerance with egg on their face. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before some focused on the attackers’ “gypsy” identity – and, hence, illegal immigration – as somehow accounting for the violence. But they are obviously unaware that Giza feared the verdict of his own community, who never allow the re-admittance of rapists and murderers in their midst, to that of the court.

Interestingly, a racially inspired shooting spree by the nephew of a far-right politician in Antwerp less than a month later caused the VB to plea insanity on the part of a “lone psychopath”, even though the shooter was deemed to be in full possession of his mental faculties and a jury found him guilty of being a “racist murderer”.

In a symbolic response to the charge of public apathy, 80-90,000 people took part, less than a fortnight after Joe’s death, in a ‘silent march’ in Brussels against senseless violence. It was the biggest public demonstration in Belgium since the ‘white march’ against the paedophile and murderer Marc Dutroux.

The brainchild of Fouad Ahidar, a Flemish politician of Moroccan descent, the silent march was well-attended by minorities to show that street violence and crime should not be forced into an ethnic pigeonhole.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 24 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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