Verviers (Ver-vee-ay), a town 20 minutes from where I live, is best known as the home of tarte au riz, (tart-o-ree) a traditional Belgian cake that combines rice pudding, a dash of cinnamon, and a delicious crust. You can get a tarte au riz in most every bakery; but locals will tell you there is something special about the proper tart, from Verviers. It’s a little bit moister, a little bit better: the real thing.
While I was teaching tap dance here in Liege on Thursday night, the police were working hard all over Belgium, and in Verviers apparently interrupted a major terrorist operation ready to explode at any minute. The cops killed two suspects, wounded and arrested a third, and by the time I was done with my tap classes I had three messages waiting for me, wanting to make sure that me and my family were OK.
I love hearing from my friends, for whatever the reason, but since the odds are way greater that I will perish in my car than at the hands of a terrorist, I wonder why no one calls or writes when I get home from my trips to tap class, or the grocery store, or most recently a school performance last Tuesday. Both Stephanie and I were sick, the show came early on a morning following two nights of horrible insomnia, and neither she nor I had any business driving. But drive we did, sleepy in the morning and sleepy in the mid-afternoon when we made it home. There were no messages congratulating us on being alive when we dragged ourselves back in the door. (Thanks, Dad, for the reminder about auto-safety…)
After the horrible assassinations at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, the search for the killers recalled the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The day that greater Boston was ordered to ‘stay inside’ (thank goodness I have forgotten the official name for this) was terrifying, or at least extremely unsettling. I had a screaming fight on the phone with my best friend, who was determined to go about her business as usual. I called her every bad name in the book, convinced of my righteousness and my acting as a ‘good citizen’.
When it turned out that one gunman was dead and the other had spent his day hiding inside a boat, I felt stupid: we had all stopped everything so that millions of dollars in military and police equipment and personnel could be engaged. Even worse, the bomber got caught because we were all allowed to go outdoors again, and the guy whose boat he was in, saw the trail of blood, and called the cops.
So as the story in Paris was unfolding last week, I went off to Friday’s French class, and found myself having a little flashback to the Marathon bombing. Shockingly, my French teacher did not give a rat’s ass about two terrorists holed up in a printery in Paris. She dismissed the whole thing. ‘What?’ she asked with a little extra innocence, ‘some people with some ideology blew up some other people because of their ideology? And why am I supposed to care about that? ‘
I was horrified, righteously convinced that she was missing a big moment in history. But then the guys committed ‘suicide by cop’ and their accomplice got killed after taking his set of hostages, and the world began to mourn, grieve, and identify with Charlie Hebdo. Stories, testimonies, radio, TV, press galore, a world united by the unquestionable right of a free society to blaspheme.
Belgium, it turns out, has Europe’s highest proportion of radicalized citizenry; that is, Belgian citizens who have committed to wage jihad. The threat of imminent terrorist attacks is real. European countries have already begun to pass laws that recall the USA Patriot Act, which in the quest to ensure freedom completely trampled over the average citizen’s civil liberties. A free press is unquestionably vital to democracy.
But so far no one has come up with an organized plan to send 10 year-old girls into their tap classes in order to blow up atheist hoofers of Jewish origin. I might live in the hotbed of radicalized Islam—the terrorists and I get great social services—but I am still a lot more likely to die en route to teach a time step, or to pick up a tarte au riz, than because I live 20 minutes from Verviers.
Disturbingly, I find myself on the wrong side of the free speech argument.
I believe deeply that people should be able to say, think, write, draw, and dance however they please. But I also know that inflammatory rhetoric and nasty words have consequences. Someone could have spared me a lot of pain and professional repercussions if they had just taped my mouth shut during my 20’s and taken away all my writing utensils. Should the consequence of free speech be death? Never.
But, just because you CAN say something, does that in any way mean that you SHOULD? I do not think that publishing images of Muhammad is a particularly meaningful way to spend one’s time. And, in the context of a war on terror and a jihadist movement, now featuring executions, beheadings, and death threats, what is the value of inflaming terrorists, or just insulting the great majority of plain-old Muslims who really don’t appreciate the imagery either?
Has our need to defend free speech come to mean, ‘Entitled wealthy people with advanced degrees have a responsibility to piss on people we don’t agree with?’ Where on earth is the humanity in that?
Anyway, just a week removed from the bloodshed, I was more excited than usual for tap classes. In the context of real tragedy, little things like a weekly tap class can really lift, focus, remind, and restart the soul. This week, a year into my career reset in Liege, 50 tap dancers came through the doors for classes. I found myself approaching my French teacher’s point of view more quickly than I could have imagined: what on earth am I supposed to do living in fear and worrying about my trip to the health food store? I’m swimming in a sea of bad time steps here, people.
While you may have never heard of Verviers until this week, I know it for two reasons: I taught a masterclass there last year on a floor so simultaneously hard and silent that it may rank as the single worst floor I have every tried to tap dance on; and if you want the best version of a tarte au riz, the closer you get to the town, the better they get.
And because I guess every American has internalized the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’: je suis tarte au riz!
Two articles really caught my eye this week, very thoughtful responses to the terror raids and the public response, and the links are included here. Especially illuminating is the first piece, from Australia, which makes the point I felt but could not articulate: the playing field–as far as social context and free speech– is not a level one by any means.
‘…the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the powerful and their guns.’
Corey Oakley, redflag.org.au
The second piece cites a writer in the New York Times, Saldin Ahmed, whose op-ed came up with this gem:
‘In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful.”
Saldin Ahmed, New York Times