By Inge Vanfraechem
The terrorist attacks in Paris have brought about both an unseen exposure of power (thousands of agents chasing the terrorists) and great showing of solidarity (the marches). A couple of days later, three ex-Syria combatants were uncovered in Verviers (Belgium). The terrorism threat level has since then gone up to level 3 because of the risk of another attack, especially towards the police.
Police as safeguarding democratic values
In a democratic state, the police are seen to be safeguarding peace and the state has the monopoly over violence (Froestad 2013). By attacking the police, the terrorists seem to target this core institution that is meant to protect society. An attack towards the police in Belgium could be prevented and the police received a lot of praise for having done so. In the days thereafter, the army was sent out to guard hotspots. There may be good arguments to send in the army, but at the same time it is important to keep in my mind that we can never exclude the possibility of terrorist attacks. Mayors have handled these solutions very differently: in Antwerp there was a quick and strong call to have the army guarding Jewish quarters, in Ghent the new year’s reception could take place as always with the police being present but the flow of people remaining the same as always. Does the presence of the army affect how people feel when walking the streets of their city? Interviews show that the presence of the army does indeed create a sense of war and might thus lead to more fear and unsafety feelings.
Trading privacy for security?
In the days after the attacks, there were calls for more (exchange of) information e.g. with regard to plane passengers. Not only politicians but citizens alike do not mind giving up privacy in order to be more secure: “If you have nothing to hide, then why be scared of privacy intrusion?” is a statement often heard.
What kind of society do we want?
This leads me to the question: what kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want a super-controlling state looking into our Facebook messages, screening our emails, listening to our phone calls and sending the army into our streets? Or can we set aside the fear, live with the idea that we will never be totally secure and strive for communication processes among and between diverse communities? I would opt for the second option, although this is not always easy to defend and strive for. Restorative justice philosophy starts from values such as respect and solidarity (Walgrave 2008) and these may help us in constructing a society that even in the aftermath of such horrifying events, still tries to remain open to differences and be communicative, rather than closing ourselves off from different cultures, ideas and religions. In that sense, it is interesting and hopeful that the mayor of Vilvoorde, Hans Bonte, is invited by Barack Obama to a big security conference in the USA (De Standaard, 31 January 2015) in order to explain his approach: this includes round tables for youngsters planning to go or coming back from Syria, involving their networks as well as professionals. The conferencing approach as we know it in restorative justice (Zinsstag & Vanfraechem 2012) may offer important insights in this regard.