After college, my wife, Carol, and I spent several backpacking, backbreaking months hitchhiking through Europe.
We began in Scotland, then made our way from Glasgow south through England. We took the ferry to Belgium from Dover, landing in Ostend, and then caught a ride to the charming, canal-threaded city of Bruges in the north.
It was early evening when we were dropped off, tired, cold and hungry, near a youth hostel where we planned to spend the night. We crossed a small, postcard-ready stone bridge and approached the building, which appeared as old as Flanders itself and somewhat foreboding. We entered…
And heard mandolins.
A dozen or so graying seniors were seated in a half circle, plucking intensely. I don’t recall why—if these happy fingers were playing for fun or giving a concert for the community of travelers.
What I do remember is the large space swelling with their music, and the two of us being greeted warmly and served hot coffee in bowls at a long wood table. And I remember this: we were enthralled.
We didn’t stay long in Bruges, and I vaguely recall being picked up at the edge of the city and later passing through Antwerp on the way to Germany.
But our evening in Bruges, those many years ago, is my memory of Belgium. It will always be my memory of this small nation.
I mention this, of course, in connection with this week’s massively covered terrorist slaughter in Belgium.
Belgium, you say? On what planet is Belgium?
Which is the point, for I’m fairly certain that if not for this horrific carnage the overwhelming bulk of Americans wouldn’t know Brussels and Belgium from beeswax.
On MSNBC Monday night, a seemingly troubled Chris Matthews derided the dangerous “nationalist sentiment” of Donald Trump’s relentlessly xenophobic message and the response to it from many of his red-white-and-bluer-than-thou followers.
I get it: Trumpet has emerged this election season as the nation’s bombasting big poopah of flag flaunters: American Gothic and the American Legion rolled into one. In making his point, though, Matthews ignored the culpability of Trumpet’s audience and America’s arrogant, chest-thumping culture of superiority, a trait nourished by our general ignorance of the wider world.
It’s this culture that Trumpet plays to, even though the concept of American superiority is undermined by his own presence as a viable presidential candidate.
The USA! USA! USA! USA! chants at Trump events are a metaphor for this raging ethnocentrism. Bottom line: we are full of ourselves and celebrate the U.S. as the center of the universe: a God-granted occupancy that comes with a lifetime lease.
We’ve flourished as the globe’s richest, most powerful nation for so long that Americans don’t realize how tiny a blip we are on the landscape of time. Other cultures—Greeks, Romans and so on—have had their own 15 minutes of fame, only to see fame inevitably move on.
Sharing the blame for our inflated national ego, by the way, are decades of U.S.-centric media coverage, most notably by television whose cameras—or lack of them—manufacture their own reality. Rarely do we witness global news that doesn’t center on bang-bang—violence and other mayhem. So the picture we get is mostly skewed, fostering a belief that human life beyond our borders is largely inferior, largely barbaric…
And Belgium is a place where only bad things happen.
The setting was Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city. The year was 1988, during the first Palestinian Intifada or uprising against Israeli occupation.
With my Palestinian “fixer,” I sat facing six other Palestinians who looked to be in their twenties. They had agreed to meet with me and discuss media coverage of the Intifada for my TV column in The Los Angeles Times.
They were with Fatah, then the political arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. They were cordial, spoke passable English and seemed to be nice guys. They ticked off their grievances with the coverage: they felt western media were mostly biased against them, just as Israelis insisted to me that the opposite was true.
I raised the question of bombings that killed innocent Israeli children and asked how they could possibly justify these acts. One referred to children as “Israeli bullets.” Another explained, “These children grow up to be Israeli soldiers.” He said this resolutely but calmly and without emotion, as if the lives of such children were abstractions. And of course, to him they were.
That was that: six nice guys who happened to endorse indiscriminate murder in service of their liberation goal.
I suppose I always knew it was impossible for the rest of us to comprehend the radical mind. But this fleeting episode pounded the point home and came to mind as I watched TV coverage of human wreckage in Belgium.
The place where only bad things happen.