The ‘silent march' in Belgium was a moving expression of popular sentiment at the tragic murder of a teenager. But calls for more police and ‘zero tolerance' will not prevent a repeat of this tragedy.
The ‘silent march' in memory of Joe Van Holsbeeck, who was knifed down for his mp3 player at Brussels' Central Station on 12 April during rush hour, drew up to 90,000 demonstrators to the streets of the capital on Sunday 23 April.
The senseless murder triggered a fair amount of collective soul-searching, but also a great deal of finger pointing. The far right, as is its forte, leapt on the apparent ethnicity of the perpetrators, blaming those ungrateful North Africans for making the streets unsafe for decent white people. Now that the police have identified the suspected murderer as a young Pole, these envoys of social intolerance have been left with egg on their face.
It was commendable that Joe's father had called for calm and senior members of the Moroccan community condemned the attack. To her credit, Joe's mother asked politicians not to capitalise on her son's murder and turned on the extreme right.
“Nobody should come to me, asking me to hate all Arabs,” she said in an interview with La Dernière Heure. “The youths who killed my son were scum. It's that kind of individual that inspires hatred in me. But don't come to me making generalisations. Scum can be found everywhere.”
How right she was.
It was also encouraging that the majority and minority communities marched side-by-side on Sunday. In fact, the idea of the ‘silent march' was the brainchild of Fouad Ahidar, a Flemish member of the Brussels regional parliament, who is of Moroccan descent. However, I felt it was entirely unnecessary to force this issue into an ethnic pigeonhole. Urban crime is not about ethnicity or nationality; it is about social marginalisation and economic despair.
But, of course, the xenophobic right are not likely to stay quiet for long and will probably pounce – although less vociferously – on the nationality of the alleged attacker. They may well say those eastern Europeans have not only come here to steal our jobs – and our most profitable corporations, such as Interbrew, are shifting their operations eastward – but they are also here to rob our youngest and brightest of their youth.
More than just ‘ordinary Joes'
Driven by fear and insecurity, many ordinary people – as well as quite a few in progressive circles – are calling for more policing and tougher punishment for offenders.
“We need more police and more cameras,” one concerned Brussels resident told De Standaard. “Security needs to be bolstered everywhere.”
“We can't continue to sweep minor offences under the carpet. We need to take a zero tolerance approach,” proposed another resident. “There aren't enough police agents? There are plenty of unemployed people around [to do these jobs]. Or why not use the army?”
When faced with violence, the first reaction for many is a demand for more security. This is nowhere more apparent than in the string of increasingly draconian ‘anti-terror' legislations at both the EU and national level that were passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 and the Madrid bombings in Spain in 2004.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that the government must step up its fight against juvenile crime, and youth criminality must be made a higher priority in regional and national plans.
Flemish Minister-President Yves Leterme agreed but pointed out that: “You cannot assign a police agent to every citizen and you cannot rid the world of violence.” Catholic Cardinal Daneels was right in criticising those who witnessed the attack and failed to help Joe.
More police and tighter security measures would not have necessarily saved Joe's life, but more concerned citizens may well have done. In a modern, well-oiled, mechanical society, we expect the ‘system' to take care of everything and everyone: the destitute and the desperate, the weak and the sick, and the criminal and their victims.
Important as it is to have effective police, judicial and welfare systems in place, alone, they are not enough. We still need a certain sense of community, in which people care for one another while respecting issues of privacy. We may never know how it was that no one in the busy rush-hour Central Station stopped to aid Joe, but perhaps too many passers-by, when they heard him rowing with his would-be attackers, thought to themselves: “It's none of my business, the police can handle it,” or “I want to intervene, but if I get involved, no one else will, and these thugs may turn on me.”
But if it were an accepted social norm, like it is in some other parts of the world, that a dozen people intervene to stop confrontations in public places, then this reduces the risk to the individual concerned citizen, while defusing the situation before it gets out of hand. At the end of the day, it's not a question of heroics, if enough people care. It is an issue of demanding that citizens take on a greater measure of personal social responsibility.