It was in March, 2016 on a flight from Bangkok to Amsterdam, that I heard about the suicide bombing of the Brussels airport – called ‘Zaventem’.
News of the attack had appeared on the international media a day before, but at the time I was travelling on local buses in the east of Thailand.
For the last three weeks, I’d been travelling in what were then remote areas of Asia – north east Cambodia and the west of Vietnam. For most of that time I had been staying in small family run hotels which had no wifi. I’d been disconnected from the real world – like a hermit – and hadn’t missed it.
On the flight to Amsterdam, as chance would have it, I found myself sitting next to a Belgian man, who along with thousands of other Belgian tourists elsewhere in the world, had had his flight to Zaventem cancelled and was forced to change his flight. He was lucky enough to have gotten a seat on the flight to Amsterdam; from there it was a train trip of a few hours to Brussels.
We made small talk and that’s how I found out about the terrorist attack at Zaventem.
At least 30 people had died and a hundred injured, he told me.
I knew then what was waiting for me on arriving back in Europe and it wasn’t exactly something to look forward to…..
I arrived early on a Friday morning and slept on and off and in the meantime, familiarised myself with the brutal facts: five suicide bombers had launched the attack on Zaventem. Thirty two people hailing from 16 different nationalities had died.
The strange thing was, I did not feel any particular emotions about it, neither outrage or shock. It was as if there was a thick sheet of glass between me and the words spoken on the TV and emblazoned on my laptop screen.
Not that I didn’t sympathise with the dead and the injured, of course I did. I could have easily been one of the victims.
Yet it was undeniable, my sense of detachment.
Was this the result of my weeks of isolation?
Yet there was something else involved.
It had been fatigue from an over-exposure to bad news which had inspired me to seek a remote place – and find a temporary rest cure – in the first place.
I mean really, how much bad news can a person handle?
When does the tipping point arrive?
Questions which are just as relevant today as they were then.
In the case of the terrorists involved in the Zaventem attack, they belonged to the Islamic State – or IS as it was known – and claimed to represent the ‘true Islam’.
Their terrorist attacks had begun shortly after I arrived in Europe in 2015 – indeed it had been a busy year for terrorism.
In January 2015, there was the murder of 11 journalists from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (and an attack on a Jewish supermarket, resulting in several deaths); in March, there was an attack on a chemical factory in the south of France in which a boss was murdered and his head impaled on a fence; in June, 40 tourists were gunned down on what was once a popular beach in Tunisia for European tourists (and which I had visited several times in the past); and closer to home, there was the attempt by a terrorist to board a Thalys train from Rotterdam to Paris (a train I’d been on several times) and murder hundreds of people with an AK47 – which was only thwarted by three American soldiers dressed in civilian clothing; in November there was another devastating attack in Paris when gunmen opened fire on people at a rock concert and other assorted locations, resulting in 130 people being murdered and 386 injured.
As for the perpetrators of this madness: they claimed to be members of IS but what did it matter? There were plenty of these nutcase outfits to choose from.
Look past the label and what one saw was: religious fanatics. And religious fanaticism was hardly unique to Islam. It was becoming depressingly commonplace for just about every religion (even Buddhism).
Anno 2023: in The Ukraine one Orthodox Christian nation was committing genocide against another Orthodox Christian nation, the number of victims running into their tens of thousands and with no end in sight….
In an age of the communications revolution – of satellite links, the mobile phone, social media, you tube and so on – fanatics, bigots and haters could spread their toxic ideas just as effectively as influencers, corporations, comedians and rock musicians. A serial misogynist like Andrew Tate could propagate his poisonous ideas about women in the same way that a talented group of young Korean men called BTS could bring joy to hundreds of millions of young people.
Global communications could be used for good and evil. It was just as much a curse as a blessing but in any case it was unstoppable.
The home grown terrorists in Europe had been strongly influenced by videos placed on You Tube by lunatics in the Middle East.
The Friday was coincidentally the start of the Easter weekend.
As an atheist I had no need to pay homage to Jesus or the Christian faith.
Nevertheless, I had my own rituals.
I listened to Bach’s Mass in B and Handel’s Messiah.
Easter gave me a good excuse to indulge in what was an old and addictive pleasure. For me, the feelings of reverence from this music ran far deeper than anything I might have experienced inside a church. At the same time, listening to these two pieces, I realised that after all said and done, religion had created fantastic works of art, music, literature, paintings and architecture.
Pity about the bigotry and intolerance that also went with it.
On Sunday (March 27) came the news of the bombing of Christians celebrating Easter in Lahore, Pakistan; 70 people were killed and 341 injured. Most of the dead and injured were women and children. As horrific as this news was, it didn’t really shock me – to force me to step outside of my self- imposed glass cage.
A byword for every form of intolerance.
In any case, distant. Never been there.
Then on the Monday it finally happened.
The bell-jar of my indifference to the horrors of the world was shattered.
I was finally forced to depart the island I’d carried around in my mind long after I’d left south east Asia.
I was back in the real world, angry, disbelieving.
“ Police investigating the religiously prejudiced death of a shopkeeper believe that the perpetrator involved travelled 300 kilometres from Bradford in a premeditated attack.
Asad Shah was founded severely injured outside his shop in the Shawlands area of Glasgow on Thursday and died later in hospital. The suspect is alleged to have stabbed him multiple times and stamped on his head. A 32-year-old man has been arrested in connection with Mr Shah’s death.
Mr Shah was a member of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam which preaches peace and tolerance towards other religions. The suspected killer was another Muslim who allegedly struck just hours after Mr Shah had posted a message on Facebook wishing a very happy Easter to his ‘beloved Christian nation’.
An anonymous source told the newspaper: “The attacker saw what Asad was saying on Facebook and drove up to track him down. The hardline Sunni Muslims call Ahmadiyya Muslims kafir. They say they are non-believers. It’s not unusual in other countries to see them killed just for their beliefs, it’s been going on for years.”
It comes as two vigils were held for Mr Shah. At least 150 people gathered on Saturday to pay their respects. Teenager Aleesa Malik, who organised the vigil, said: “He was a beautiful soul. He would take the effort to care for every customer. He would want to know how you were, what you were doing. He took an interest in everyone’s lives – old, young, anyone. You could be any colour, that would not be an issue for him, he just cared too much.”
I was outraged at what had happened to Asad Shah.
I felt personally involved in what had happened to him.
Which was crazy.
The fate of one man weighed upon me far more than that of the 70 women and children who had been blown to pieces for the crime of being Christians, not to mention the people killed and injured at Zaventem …and all the other countless innocents murdered or maimed for no other crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…..
Perhaps it is easier for us to identify with the life and the lot of a single person rather than a mass of people. Which is why time and again, news reports often focus on the stories of specific individuals in order to highlight the plight of many others.
Perhaps we are bombarded by such an anarchy of disasters and horrors in the blitz of news updates – the 24 news cycle – part and parcel of a ‘modern society’ – that we find ourselves struggling to order our moral priorities; to make any kind of sense from a chaos of ongoing misery.
Ahmed Shah was at once a real person and at the same time a symbol for all the savagery in the world being inflicted on innocents for no reason.
I needed distance from the cruel fate Ahmed Shah. An anonymous mild mannered shopkeeper butchered …because he posted good wishes to the Christians on his Facebook page.
It was time to do something else, to direct my thoughts, my existence, in another direction: to try and find that safe haven behind the layer of psychological glass.
Escape reality, escape myself.
I ate a marihuana biscuit, put my headphones on, and looked up Mozart piano concertos on You Tube……