war on the rocks

A Tale of Two Terrorist Attacks in Brussels and Ankara

March 28, 2016

In the span of less than two weeks, two European capitals were struck by horrendous acts of terrorism. Two European capitals lost dozens of innocent civilians to cowardly bombings. Two European capitals had their public transportation systems targeted and hospitals inundated with the injured and scared. One of these European capitals received significant media coverage in the United States and one did not. One of these European capitals was supported by Facebook profile filters and world monuments displaying colors in its honor, while the other has been met largely with indifference and silence.

The bombings in Brussels were devastating. As with Paris only months before, they shook Western society. I grieve as I remember last month, when I stood in the international airport terminal and the Maelbeek metro station in the very spots terrorists struck. However, as I share the grief and concern for our friends and allies in Belgium, I also mourn with the people of Turkey, who have faced a spate of bombings in their own capital, as well as their treasured city of Istanbul, but without the same outpouring of support from their friends and allies.

Nine days prior to the attacks in Brussels, the Turkish capital of Ankara was rocked by a suicide bombing killing 37 people. Less than a month prior, a suicide bomb in Ankara killed 30 people. Only four months before this attack, the most devastating terrorist attack in Turkish history ripped through Ankara, taking 109 souls marching for peace. Three terrorist attacks in five months just in Ankara alone and no global sympathy to show for it. Can we blame our Turkish friends for being resentful as they watch us rend our clothes over Brussels and Paris and almost ignore the suffering of Turkish people?

What explains this neglect? Americans often identify Turkey as simply another Muslim-majority state that borders Iraq and Syria, where coverage of an attack in Ankara is shrugged off as simply “business as usual.” More cynically, some even suggest Ankara somehow deserved these attacks because of its regional policies or ongoing domestic struggle with Kurdish separatists. Unfortunately, these voices are now being used in Turkey to confirm a double standard that Turks have long suspected. This sentiment is unhelpful in furthering counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence gathering that requires unity, not division.

What can we take away from the terrible attacks in Brussels and Turkey? The most important is that we cannot treat each attack separately or reactively. At least one of the Brussels attackers, who also might have played a part in the Paris attacks, was known to authorities in Turkey. Therefore, as European and Turkish authorities discuss cooperation over their common refugee crisis they must also proactively be working together to prevent future attacks, rather than blaming each other after the fact. This is not just a European-Turkish problem, but a broader international prerogative that requires high-level attention and effort to work more collaboratively — given that counter-terrorism efforts must transcend national boundaries just like the tactics of the global jihadi networks that are now targeting us all — and America must lead in this effort. Brussels shows us that there are no boundaries for terrorists, but also that as an international community, we have the potential to come together in the face of terror.

The question of “why” leads to a much more important question: What would happen if media coverage of terrorist attacks in nations like Turkey, Kenya, or Lebanon rose — not even to the same level of coverage given to the Brussels attacks, but just proportionally in terms of the number of lives lost? What would happen if Americans saw images of people running in fear wearing hijabs almost as often as they saw them running in blue jeans? If stories like that of Adel Termos, a Lebanese man who tackled a suicide bomber to save others at the cost of his own life last November in Beirut, were covered more broadly and insistently by the media, political candidates demanding a ban on the entry of Muslims to the United States, or calling for police to aggressively patrol Muslim neighborhoods, would be ridiculed rather than applauded. By both sharing and empathizing in our collective fear and courage with those we may not commonly relate to politically and culturally, we can potentially bridge the divides that are only growing in response to the inequity in coverage of terrorist attacks globally.

As a country the United States has become desensitized to terrorist attacks within the Middle East. The mindset that attacks in countries outside Western European allies are the norm is an extremely dangerous perception that threatens to accomplish exactly what terrorists like the so-called Islamic State want: to broaden the divide between the United States and the people we need most to defeat these terrorists. We now must extend that same face of solidarity to others. The people of Turkey and many others deserve, at the very least, our recognition of their suffering.

 

Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State and is the Founding Dean of the APCO Institute.