‘Do you hear the silence’

March 22, 2019

“Do you hear the silence.” A poem Utrecht´s city poet Els van Stalborch wrote  in response to the horrible, irrational violence that kills and injures innocent people. Out of the blue on a Monday morning in Utrecht, on a tram on the 24th of  October Square. A square named for the date of the founding of the United Nations.

Do you hear the silence? You can hear it in the PAX office in the centre of Utrecht, not far from the scene of the shooting. A distant siren. The clatter of a helicopter. A taxi speeds along a deserted street. But in the silence, you also hear the people’s sadness for lives snatched away. And you hear the fear of what may be coming.

“Utrecht holds its breath,
fear runs on stocking feet
through the streets and beats
on doors, windows,
sneaks into schools and
scares children. ”

Hold your breath

Utrecht holds its breath. The Netherlands is holding its breath. People are searching for answers. Was this violence caused by mental illness, or to commit a crime? Or is it aimed at our way of life, at democracy and the rule of law, and thus at all of us? This question hits home. We are all too aware that a terrorist attack can further divide an already polarized society. So we hold our breath.

Regardless of what motivated the shooter in Utrecht, the question remains: what do we do with the fear that knocks on our doors and creeps into our houses and our hearts? What do we do with the awareness that our way of life, that our own lives are so vulnerable to violence and division?

Dutch right-wing populists Theirry Baudet and Geert Wilders have an answer that has been heard before in our recent past, the results of which we continue to mourn. An answer that both responds to fear and fuels that fear. Their response: evil comes from elsewhere, from people with a different background, a different religion, people they say do not belong here. They call for people to lock their doors and windows — to lock the outsider out.

Another answer

But violence and fear call for a different answer. An answer that reverberated around the world on the 24th of October, 1945, on the birthday of the United Nations. After years of hatred and violence, the United Nations Charter called for tolerance, for living in peace with each other as good neighbours, for joining forces for peace. Monday’s violence on the 24th of October Square evokes fear. But the 24th of October Square itself reminds us of our answer to that violence.

Does that mean that we are done? Not in the least, as is evident from the dramatic results of Wednesday’s elections in the Netherlands. The new party of right-wing populist Thierry Baudet, Forum for Democracy, won a historic victory in elections to the Provincial Assemblies. In a city, in a country holding its breath, purveyors of hate have the wind in their sails. That so many frightened people seek refuge in parties that sow divisions and fear can be seen as a warning. That so many people who feel threatened by immigrants and refugees find shelter with parties that fuel xenophobia is downright dangerous.

It´s is up to us to come up with an answer to people who feel threatened, an answer rooted in ideas of the 24th of October, 1945. Not an answer that divides us even further. Not an answer that fuels discrimination and extremism. Rather, an answer that tackles growing inequality. An answer that contributes to an inclusive society in which we live as good neighbours. An answer that safeguards us from fear of one another.

The urgency of this duty can be heard in the silence — the silence of Utrecht and far beyond.

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