It was a quintessentially Belgian reaction. As army vehicles patrolled their streets, giving Brussels the aspect of a city under foreign occupation, the good burghers of that grey, rainy capital were asked to say nothing about what they might see from their windows.
How did they respond? By Tweeting pictures of their cats. Ah, mais c’est très belge! How quirky, how tamely eccentric, like a louche little beard, or a decorative swirl on an art nouveau house! The Bruxellois, habituated to closures by constant strikes, brushed off the terrorist threat with a feline joke. Good for them.
Still, it’s telling that, in the midst of the trauma, almost no one reached for a national symbol. When Americans are afflicted by terrorism, they fly their flag. When Paris was violated, it turned red, white and blue. But in Belgium, you rarely see the national tricolor except on a state building.
Perhaps there is a connection between this lack of national feeling and the readiness with which several second-generation Belgians turn against their adopted country. Many Western European states have disaffected immigrant populations, but none has sent such a high proportion of its nationals to Syria. Molenbeek, the dreary quartier where most of the Paris murderers were raised, is Europe’s jihadi capital.
All human beings crave a sense of belonging. When they get no such sense from their nation, they cast around for more assertive identities. And what could be more assertive, more self-confident, than the monstrous cult of Islamic State?
Americans are good at projecting national loyalty. Some Europeans find it wince-making, but the unselfconscious way in which Americans fly flags from their houses and drape their towns with bunting makes it easier for newcomers to integrate.
In Europe, by contrast, patriotism is scorned as oafish. The ruling ideology holds that the nation-state is both dangerous and passé. We are all Europeans now, and our state flags will eventually go the way of our state passports – subsumed into a post-national EU.
The problem is especially severe in Belgium because Belgium is, so to speak, a mini-EU, a multi-national state whose political system is held together largely by public spending. There is no Belgian language, no Belgian culture, no Belgian history. The country is divided between a Dutch-speaking north, containing some 60 per cent of the population, and a French-speaking south. The two communities read separate newspapers, watch separate TV, vote for separate parties. To adapt René Magritte, one of those elusive famous Belgians, ceci n’est pas un pays.
The last federal Belgian election was won by a Flemish separatist party, the N-VA. The N-VA is impeccably moderate and reasonable. It has simply made the observation that the lack of national feeling makes Belgian politics unnecessarily remote, corrupt and self-serving.
Unsurprisingly, the two communities have turned in on themselves. But where does this leave, say, a Moroccan-origin boy in Molenbeek? What is there for him to be part of? Neither Flemish nor Walloon, his every interaction with the Belgian state will have taught him to despise it. If he got any history at all in school, it will have been presented to him as a hateful chronicle of racism and exploitation. Is it any wonder that he is in the market for something stronger, more assertive?
The same is tragically true of some youngsters in other Western European countries, and in Britain. But here, at least, successive prime ministers since Tony Blair have decried multi-culturalism as a doctrine that brings division rather than diversity.
David Cameron has strenuously sought to construct a patriotism that can comfortably contain us all, wherever our parents were born. We can draw on a shared language and a shared past. The two world wars are as much the heritage of Britons of Commonwealth origin as of anyone. An extraordinary 2.5 million volunteers, including a million Muslims, came from British India alone to fight for this country against fascism. “This story shall the good man teach his son,” says our national poet.
The Belgian state has little by way of such a story; or, if it has, it keeps it quiet. Here, as much as anywhere, the world’s ills are blamed on Western foreign policy in general, and on America in particular. Hardly the way to encourage newcomers to assimilate.
The best way to defeat a bad idea is with a good idea. The best way to displace the ideology of jihadism is by put something better in its stead. The best way to encourage boys in Molenbeek to integrate is to offer them something into which to integrate. In the end, this comes down to self-belief. Not theirs; ours.