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Belgium’s Manneken-Peace

I gaped bleary-eyed at my the screen of my computer, yesterday morning, blinking away sleep, trying to catch up with what happens in the world around me for another day.

I gaped bleary-eyed at my the screen of my computer, yesterday morning, blinking away sleep, trying to catch up with what happens in the world around me for another day. Instead of what often amounts to the same-old-same-old, dire pronouncements of what happened in Brussels, Belgium glared at me in the light of the monitor.

Headlines announcing the 34 dead and hundreds wounded at the metro and airport told me to wake up. Images of disoriented people coated in plaster dust, in ripped bloodstained clothing, of destroyed metro terminals littered with shattered ceiling panels and crumbled walls confronted me, and my immediate thought was, “Not this again.”

I became aware of a couple of things right after that. I was reminded of how much of an impediment religious extremism is to civilization’s advancement. I also noticed one parallel among the many that stood out, between the attacks on Belgium and the ones that happened in Paris, in November.

Like Paris' Charlie Hebdo and its cheeky satire, Brussels has its own symbol of defiance in the face of the murderous cretins of ISIS. Brussels’ symbol of resistance to terror is just as saucy as some of the French satire magazine's more flagrant and controversial covers, but it has a beautiful simplicity all its own, grounded in iconic historical relevancy. In fact, the symbol I speak of can actually be found in physical form in the city, itself. It's called "Manneken Pis."

Providing a literal translation of the phrase into English would be distasteful and a little pointless, because I think we all know what I’m talking about. It’s a world-famous work of art, and the meaning of its name is pretty obvious, when you look at it. It’s a statue of a little man urinating into a fountain.

It goes to show you how tough-as-nails the people of Belgium are, that it’s their response to the atrocities committed in their city. It also has a whole lot more meaning packed into it than being nervy.

There has been a common theme I've noticed among the people of places that have suffered terror attacks. From the 2011 Norway attacks carried out by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik to the Islamic terror attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office, the Stade de France, several Parisian cafes, restaurants and the Bataclan, a theatre in Paris, when cooler heads prevail, people want to show they have not been intimidated.

Citizens who weathered those attacks want to show the terrorists that they have not won, that they won't let whatever happened change them for the worse. Survivors show they can survive, and thrive, after an attack. You see it when people do exactly what they were going wanted to do anyway, the next day; in people getting up, going to work and living their lives after an attack.

Certain people, the hardy folks of Belgium being among them, turn to humour to show their defiance. You know those ugly bumper stickers you always see, that some truck and car owners put on their vehicle, depicting Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes relieving himself on the logo of whichever automotive brand they don't like? Well, social media is exploding with (slightly) classier renditions of something just like that, featuring Belgium's iconic little statue, instead of Calvin.

The little Manneken has performed a feat of alchemy, taking symbols of the horrors that befell Brussels on Tuesday, and, well, taking a leak on them all, reducing them to effigies to be mocked. No symbol of ISIS or terrorism is safe from desecration, with everything from crude drawings of bombs, to actual depictions of cowled AK-47-toting ISIS terrorists and their flag getting doused in a golden stream of rebellious cultural self-affirmation. 

I can’t but admire the quirkiness of the response and the message of “get bent” it gives to ISIS. There is no quick or easy solution to the cultural tensions and poisonous political aims that created an environment in which terror attacks on European cities are so common, but Brussels’ flippant act of crude humour is a guarantee that they are strong enough to take the first step in finding that solution.