Trauma and Trust after Brussels

How Can a Society of Strangers Cope with Terrorism?

"They call themselves Muslims, but they do not represent us at all. They are murderers. They are our main enemies, and honestly it really hurts because it could have been me."

The speaker is a bespectacled young woman in a brown hijab. She is talking to a Reuters reporter in Brussels on March 23, the day after the Islamic State's nail bombs took the lives of 35 victims and injured over 300 more.

I am grateful to this Muslim woman for speaking with such simple humanity in the wake of the latest Islamist savagery, but I am especially moved by the actions of a different Belgian Muslim at the same event, someone who wanted to offer something more than words. Following the attacks, Ahmed el-Jafoufi joined hundreds of other Belgians at the city's Place de la Bourse to offer … free hugs.

"We cannot turn back time,” el-Jafoufi told a reporter from a Chinese news service, “but we can make sure the terrorists don't achieve their goal, which is to divide us."

Hugging strangers may seem like a pitiful response to mass murder, but many Europeans welcome the gesture at a time when they feel scared and helpless and are seeking a reaction that won't escalate the hatred and violence.

Simeon Janssens, who uploaded a video of the free-hugs event, told the UK's Daily Mail, "When you're sad about something that happened to you, you need a hug. In the same way, Brussels needed a big hug that day."

Trust and Vulnerability

Judging from angry comments under the online videos, some find the free-hugs response to terrorism worse than facile: critics are offended that anyone would seek greater trust between Muslims and non-Muslims. The terror and vulnerability of Europe's urban populations is, as they see it, the result of too much, not too little, trust.

So why have so many been drawn to the embrace of strangers in the aftermath of recent massacres?

Four months earlier, after agents of the Islamic State unleashed bullets and nail bombs around Paris, killing 130 and injuring another 368, one Muslim man, concerned that French Muslims would soon be targeted for reprisals, covered his eyes with an Arab keffiyeh and stood with open arms at the Place de la République. At his feet a cardboard sign explained: "I am a Muslim and they're saying I am a terrorist. I trust you. And you, do you trust me? If yes, hug me."

Hundreds of white Parisians, men and women, took him in their arms. Others encircled him with camera phones. You can see many wiping away tears as they record the event.

The Anonymous Order and Its Discontents

Terrorist attacks tend to focus on cities, not only because population density increases the damage they can inflict with each explosion or shooting, but also because the urban terrorist can more easily move unnoticed. City dwellers do not expect to recognize the people around them. This is the same reason crime rates tend to be higher in cities. Anonymity makes it easier to get away with behaviors that smaller communities can both prevent and penalize more readily.

Having grown up in 1970s New York, I left as soon as I could. For most of my life, I have marveled that anyone would willingly live in a city. Yet more than half the people on earth choose to do so, because larger, denser populations allow for greater division of labor and therefore greater prosperity. As economist Edward Glaeser emphasizes in The Triumph of the City, the rural poor move to cities because cities are poverty-reduction engines.

What Adam Smith called the "invisible hand" allows strangers to improve each other's lives without necessarily caring for each other. The larger the market, the greater and more widespread the wealth. But the impersonal prosperity machine doesn't make sense to most of us. We seeks its rewards but feel profoundly alienated by its method.

As FEE contributor Steve Horwitz explains in "Hayek, the Family, and Social Individualism,"

Our moral instincts were honed in millennia of living in small kin-based intimate orders, and thus notions of collective purpose, shared ends, altruism, and zero-sum thinking, as well as the importance of good intentions, are deeply encoded in our minds. Unfortunately, these moral instincts are not appropriate for life in the anonymous world.

Seeking a Smaller World

And yet those moral instincts remain with us, and they assert themselves most intensely at times of crisis and physical jeopardy. We see them in evidence with both the European huggers and their outraged critics.

The huggers resist the social fragmentation of terrorism by rejecting the urge to close ranks; instead they look for evidence of empathy across the divide of race and religion. Surrounded by strangers, they still strive for the collective purpose, altruism, and good intentions of the intimate order. They seek an emotional connection with the anonymous other, and they have discovered that physical touch can promote such connections.

Their critics too seek a return to an intimate order, but one in which it is easier to recognize insiders and keep outsiders at bay. Ironically, this is what the Islamic State is after, as well: a world of identifiably homogeneous fellow believers with collective purpose and shared ends.

I want to side with the huggers. If the terrorists seek division, then a defiant unity counts as a courageous response to mass violence. And where previous calls to stand united have so often taken the form of rallying around the flag or fervent support for a political leader, the response we see in the Place de la République and the Place de la Bourse is something new. It is not political in the traditional follow-the-leader sense. It is more personal, spontaneous. More human.

But I can’t dismiss the critics. Not everyone who promotes trust in the name of tolerance deserves either one. In early December, English Muslim convert Muhammad Mujahid Islam, born Craig Wallace, imitated the Parisian trust-hugger by holding a sign at a Westminster antiwar rally inviting passers-by to see past his adopted religion and trust him enough for a hug. What must those who did so have felt when they learned the following week that Islam/Wallace had been charged with a bomb threat against a Member of Parliament?

What One Person Can Do

The terrorists’ goal is not just to kill and maim the immediate victims but to traumatize the rest of us. What, then, do we do with that trauma?

All of the standard reactions require collective decisions. You can call for tighter or looser immigration restrictions, tougher or more humble foreign policy, a larger or smaller welfare state, less or more assimilation. But these are not steps for individuals who want, individually, to do whatever they can now, before things get worse.

When the anonymous French Muslim blindfolded himself in the Place de la République, he knew he’d be surrounded by hundreds of unseen non-Muslims with no reason to trust him. He gave his trust first. He put his body forward as an offering, to stanch the flow of animosity and alienation. His open arms offered comfort to the grieving and defiance to those who commit atrocities in the name of his religion. That gesture may have saved lives, or it may simply have offered hope to those who felt hopeless.

Some in Brussels now follow his example, ignoring questions of policy for the moment, while, in their grief, they embrace something more personal.

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