Feel Safer?

by Chikashi


Antwerp Diamond District bombing, 1981, image via Gazette van Antwerpen

I had a flatmate at university who was a year above me. A very nice chap. A superb mathematician with a heart of gold. In other words, I have no idea how he ended up being our flatmate. After completing his undergraduate degree, he moved from our rather sheltered environment atop College Hill in Providence to Manhattan in pursuit of a doctorate.

He found himself an apartment in the Lower East Side, in Alphabet City. The area has become rather fashionable in recent years, but in the 80s, it was still a pretty rough neighbourhood. Heading into, and returning from, the neighbourhood to go clubbing at places like Cave Canem in the small hours was taking a calculated risk (or done drunk, high or most likely both). We were all a bit bemused that a bookish guy with a relatively limited exposure to the grittier, seedier side of life moved into a neighbourhood like that. A couple of months after the move, we asked him how he was finding his new ‘hood, and he told us that he felt very safe because there was an NYPD cruiser patrolling his block about once every half hour. It was the most adorable reply anyone could have given, but we explained to him the likely reason for the high police visibility. Nonetheless, he felt safe.

My current office is located on a street where a car bomb killed 3 people and injured 106 people in 1981. It has since been under 24-hour police protection, with countless surveillance cameras and elevated pillars blocking cars from entering the area. The police, armed with automatic weapon, are stationed at the end of the street, housed inside a bullet-proof enclosure. Cars are not allowed to enter without a permit which is granted only through a strict diligence process. Courier vans, such as DHL and FedEx, are not allowed in; they must park their vans outside the protected area and carry the parcels in or out by foot. Until recently, the waste bins on the street were of Israeli design that could withstand a detonation of a bundle of dynamite, the idea being that if a bomb were to be found, one can toss the bomb in the bin and let it detonate with minimal casualties. In other words, it’s the sort of environment that can make the outrage about the US National Security Agency’s indiscretions seem a bit quaint.

Then, since the start of this year, security in the area was stepped up a few notches, with the Belgian government making the highly unusual move of deploying the military within her own borders. Para-commandos armed with automatic weapons on foot patrol became part of the landscape.

belgian para commandos

image by Virginia Mayo via AP Images

It was supposed to be a temporary measure lasting only a month, but 11 months on they are still on patrol duty. The upgrading of the security risk level back in January has obviously not been reversed.

And, then the Paris attacks happened with key involvement of those based in Brussels.

As has been mentioned in the media recently, Brussels is a black hole when it comes to law enforcement, intelligence gathering and administrative co-ordination. If something were to come this way from Brussels, it seems reasonable to expect that any information coming from Brussels will be too late to be of any value for Antwerp. I should think that the soldiers will be here for a little while longer.

Do I feel safer? Perhaps it’s the wrong question.