A curious development set off alarm bells across Europe last week, when Jurgen Conings, a Belgian soldier, stole heavy weapons from a military base before going off the radar.
What made that incident all the more sensational was that it was not an ordinary case of theft. After all, Conings is no ordinary man.
Conings, an elite soldier, was trained by the Belgian army before taking part in several foreign missions. His escape was ostensibly motivated by a toxic mix of radicalism, racism and Islamophobia.
According to media reports, Conings told his friends that he intended to attack local mosques, or Muslim places of worship, in the Belgian town of Eisden – near the Dutch city of Maastricht.
The local authorities ordered some mosques to temporarily close as a precaution. The Turkish Embassy in Brussels, meanwhile, issued a written statement alerting Turkish citizens living in Belgium.
The story of a soldier, who stole heavy weapons from the army to kill innocent civilians in the heart of Europe, understandably caused shock and trepidation. The Belgian media refers to the ongoing search for Conings as a “manhunt.”
They refer to the fugitive soldier as a terrorist threat. The authorities, meanwhile, warn that the suspect may have fled to the Netherlands or Germany. Those are certainly pressing concerns, as the racist terrorist must be caught before harming innocent people.
A more important – and, admittedly, more difficult — question also begs to be answered. The world learned about Conings and his dangerous ideas because he happens to be a deserter.
Are there others like him serving in European armies? Are there other soldiers (or politicians) who subscribe to the same views? Unfortunately, the answer is affirmative.
Let me elaborate. Every country suffers from some level of racism, yet governments, which believe in certain universal values, take necessary precautions to stop such ideas from spreading and gaining a foothold.
Racism feeds off poverty, financial crises and xenophobia. It gains legitimacy and spreads like wildfire in democracies, especially if there are corrupt politicians around to exploit popular movements regardless of their nature.
The growing popularity of racist and xenophobic parties in France, for example, comes to mind.
That is why the illness of racism reached the streets of Europe and the United States long before the coronavirus. Terrorist attacks by Daesh and other groups certainly fueled its spread.
As large numbers of poor people from Syria and Iraq made their way to Europe, politicians were forced to deal with an unmanageable crisis.
Around the same time, the European media recklessly associated terrorism with Islam – as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wanted to become prime minister, endorsed the following slogan: “Turkey, population 76 million, is joining the EU. Vote Leave – Take Back Control.”
Combined with the continent’s economic stagnation, those statements and associations created a fertile ground for racism. (Needless to say, the pandemic also contributed to that dangerous trend.)
For those reasons, Conings is not alone. The 2019 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 innocent people lost their lives, should have set off alarm bells in Western democracies – but it did not.
Let us recall that a group of German soldiers stole 95,000 bullets and 62 kilograms (137 pounds) of explosives in 2020. Instead of launching an investigation, Brig. Gen. Markus Kreitmayr, the head of the Special Forces Command, told his troops that they could return it all anonymously – without consequences.
Unfortunately, that approach reflects the leniency of European armies toward racists. People like Kreitmayr seem to view racism as a misdemeanor – something they can sweep under the rug— instead of a crime. There is no doubt that impunity only serves to encourage racists.
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