After Brussels Attacks, Experts Say ‘Fear Plays Well on the Campaign Trail’

What do Tuesday’s attacks in Belgium mean for the U.S. and the world?

By Rhonda FanningMarch 22, 2016 1:49 pm,

Americans awoke to the news of a terrorist attack Tuesday morning. At least 34 people are dead and more than 150 wounded after two attacks on transportation facilities in Belgium’s capital city. Brussels is in lockdown.

Two explosions hit Brussels’ international Zaventem airport, and a third bomb was diffused. One suicide bomb hit the Maalbeek metro station. Both are transportation hubs that serve the European Union’s international core. On social media, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Belgium’s King Philippe is slated to address the bombings at a press conference later today. French President Francois Hollande made a statement just hours after the attacks.

“It is vital that we grasp the significance and seriousness of the terrorist threat. We are confronted by a global threat which calls for a global response,” he said. “Terrorists struck Brussels, but it was Europe that was targeted – and all the world that is concerned.”

The attacks came days after Salah Abdeslam, a wanted suspect for the Paris attacks earlier this year, was arrested in Brussels after a shootout with armed police.

Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs professor, tells the Standard the timing of the Brussels’ attacks can’t be ignored.

“I think the message is clearly that the terrorists – whoever they are – are prepared to retaliate and that they are not going to be a prevented from doing what they want to do by a few arrests,” he says. “This activity that we’ve seen today was clearly in the works long before the recent arrest but the timing is to reinforce that that arrest will not stop them.”

Suri, like Hollande, says that the bombings weren’t just directed at Belgium, but at all Europe. President Barack Obama drove that message home with a statement Tuesday.

“This is yet another reminder that the world must unite,” he said. “We must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”

But could terror attacks like these be the new normal? Suri says that view is unacceptable.

“I think there’s a space in between saying ‘This is the end of the world’ and saying ‘This is the new normal,’” he says. “Our urge is to respond like for like, and that’s, I think, what we need to resist. That’s what Europeans are struggling with.”

In recent years there’s been a rise in Europe’s political far right, with mainstream politicians attempting to avoid a Europe versus the Middle East mentality – an approach Suri says contributes to these incidents.

“These are members of the European community and members of other communities who feel that these institutions have not served them well,” he says. “Further locking them out only contributes to more of these problems.”

It’s hard to ignore that the Brussels attacks happened the same day American voters head to the polls for the primaries in Arizona and Utah; Democrats are caucusing in Idaho.

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, says Americans are bringing Tuesday’s news into the polling stations with them, which could play a factor in their decisions.

“It could either directly become part of how they calculate who (they) want to vote for – thinking about what the different candidates have done or what they’ve said on issues of terrorism and these potential threats,” Zelizer says. “It also could just be part of how people gauge someone as a leader.”

Indeed, politicians around the country have released statements on the attacks. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the Democratic candidates, echoed Obama. “The international community must come together to fight Isis,” he said.

Whereas GOP frontrunner Donald Trump tweeted that Brussels is just the beginning, and that he’s been right about terrorism from the start.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also spoke up: “This is war. This is not an isolated incident. This is not a lone wolf.”

Zelizer says this type of fear mongering isn’t new.

“Fear plays well on the campaign trail….That’s what candidates like to do,” he says. “The goal often in campaigns is not to talk rationally about how policy challenges should be dealt with, or to look overall at the situation we face, but rather to scare voters.”