IJUUR | The City at War: Reflections on Beirut, Brussels, and Beyond
IJUUR, het International Journal of Urban and Regional Research lanceert de tweede editie van haar digitale serie "Spotlight On". Deze editie met de titel 'The City at War', behandelt militair urbanisme en stedelijk terrorisme en onderzoekt daarvoor steden als Beirout, Parijs, Brussel en veel meer. [artikel in het Engels]
This second issue of IJURR’s “Spotlight On” web series focuses on military urbanism and urban terrorism. What are the socio-material effects of the new urban geographies of war? In the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, urban scholarship bean to theorize the geographical shift of military conflict towards cities, with various IJURR authors contributing to this conceptualization of urban warfare. Drawing on a range of urban cases and disciplinary perspectives, the contributions to this Spotlight provide an update and an extension of this work.
Selection from the essay "Comparative Military Urbanism: Topographies of Citizenship and Security Threats in Brussels and Jerusalem" by Lior Volinz
"Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the seat of the European Commission, European Council and NATO, is a city known for its laissez-faire attitude in which different communities live side by side. From the neat and orderly European quarter to the mixed neighborhoods with soundscapes dominated by Arabic, Brussels is known as a hectic, yet peaceful city. Despite inequalities in public spending between the different municipalities that comprise the capital, the city saw little of the upheaval witnessed in the suburbs of Paris or Stockholm. Brussels’ decentralized urban mode of governance permits local authorities a degree of control over police matters, mitigating the strong-arm policies often advocated on the national level. The last few years, however, did see growing public anxiety over the old and new threat of terror; the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq attracted hundreds of Belgian Muslim youth to Middle Eastern battlegrounds, many of whom subsequently returned to Brussels.
Belgian public security officials faced growing pressure to ramp up counter-terrorism efforts, especially after an attack on the city’s Jewish Museum in 2014. Yet due to Belgium’s fractured political landscape, Brussels’ decentralized police administration and years of budget cuts, public security personnel were spread thinner than ever. The government’s response was the deployment of soldiers to the streets of Brussels and other major cities for the first time in decades. What began as a minor deployment of 300 soldiers to safeguard specific ‘sensitive’ locations, such as the Jewish quarter in Antwerp and the American Embassy in Brussels, turned into a major operation following the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the subsequent attacks in Brussels in March 2016. Soldiers were stationed in every major thoroughfare, patrolling the city’s commercial districts, guarding nearly every transport hub.
The soldiers, heavily armed and dressed in full military attire, were welcomed by some residents with enthusiasm at first. Their reception was naturally not detached from local and national politics: considered as ‘outsiders’ to Brussels, many hoped the soldiers would bring order to the chaotic city. Other residents were hesitant – could the regiments of young soldiers really protect the city, or would they only contribute to further discrimination and alienation of the city’s minorities? While Brussels is an incredibly heterogeneous city, Belgian soldiers are a far more homogenous group, with Flemish soldiers constituting the majority in every rank of the country’s armed forces. As the months passed, the presence of soldiers became a part of everyday life in Brussels – but with little authority other than to stand guard or conduct patrols, their presence did not fundamentally change the city’s predicament. The deployment of soldiers to the city can thus be understood as a military form of ‘reassurance policing’ (Innes 2004), aimed primarily at showing presence by presenting a highly visible and public element of the state’s efforts against the threat of terrorism."
Image: Soldiers stationed in central Brussels (17.7.2016). Photo: Ronan Shenhav, CC BY-NC 2.0