Terrible Thoughts on Today’s Brussels Airport Bombing

There were two explosions in the Brussels airport departure hall around around 8 a.m. local time today. There was also an explosion at a subway station near EU headquarters. Flights were suspended. US flights to Brussels landed safely. Intra-european flights were diverted or returned to their origin. (Update: Delta 42 from New York JFK was diverted to Amsterdam, hat tip Joe Brancatelli)

As of this writing at least 13 have been reported dead at the airport and 15 at the subway station. Although some of what we will read and see on television reported today will turn out to be wrong.

This follows Friday’s arrest of Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam. (As Bruce Schneier observes, “tracking people, and tracing groups of people, has become easy because of all the unencrypted metadata we generate everywhere.” And also that fugitives should learn to cook if they want to minimize their footprint.) Presumably an attack of this nature has been planned for some time.

One of the airport explosions is reported to have been near the American Airlines check-in counter, although not in the American Airlines check-in row. The other explosion is reported to have been near the check-in desk for Brussels Airlines. American confirmed their “employees and contractors are accounted for with no reported injuries.”

Here are people fleeing the terminal:

With the airport closed, the subway shut down, and Eurostar not operating within Belgium anyone who must get out would likely have had to rent a car to drive to Paris.

Targeting check-in desks is something I wrote a magazine article about in 2001. As you harden security, the attack zone widens. Perhaps we’ll rethink the wisdom of long TSA lines but probably we will not.

I’m reminded of Albert Camus,

We can foresee a time when…the only people at liberty will be prison guards who will then have to lock up one another. When only one remains, he will be called the ‘Supreme Guard’; and that will be the ideal society in which problems of opposition, the headache of all twentieth century governments, will be settled once and for all.

At least sporadically at some airports in Europe access to some airline check-in counters including American has included ID checks. Some airports in Southeast Asia require showing ID and printed itineraries to enter the terminal. Those requirements of course aren’t difficult for would-be terrorists to meet.

While there’s always the risk of follow-on attacks, I actually feel safer flying through Europe. In some measure the risk of European and Brussels travel (at least once Brussels travel again becomes possible) is less than it was yesterday since this attack has already happened.

My commute, for several years after 9/11, took me directly past the Pentagon each morning and evening. I feel much safer traveling by plane each day than making that commute, which itself turned out not to repeat itself.

While shocking, and painful – to watch and certainly for the families affected – terrorism remains rare and air travel relatively safe.

Paris will light up the Eiffel Tower in the colors of Belgium’s flag tonight.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Not the first time this has happened. December 1985 – same day attacks on the Rome and Vienna airport check in counters.

    And we moved on…

  2. In the USA, the long queues at TSA lines would be an extremely soft and effective target for a suicide bomber. Hopefully somebody at the TSA is proactive enough to realize this.

    The libertarian in me cringes, but perhaps we need compulsory TSA Precheck (subsidized by the government) to enter an airport. There would be a thumb-scanning kiosk at the airport entryway. While the upfront costs would be huge, it would reduce the amount of ongoing security you need inside the airport.

  3. As a loss control and safety consultant I always warn people of the danger in soft targets. Its why you hear about “mass shootings” in gun free zones or events like.this in less secure areas. Anywhere that people mass together with limited escape routes and limited security or protection are a hazard at some level.
    As travelers we must step up now and plan to keep visiting Brussels. Terror only works when we are terrorized.

  4. @Pat then wouldn’t we need those thumb scanners not just at airports but at schools, court houses, stadiums, movie theaters.. in fact, checkpoints everywhere? And don’t the checkpoints themselves become targets? It’s been nearly 15 years since a successful terrorist attack on US airlines. And our airport security forces haven’t caught a terrorist. Yet your fears want to create a true police state in response to a threat that kills far fewer than road deaths each year?

  5. Let’s also be clear that while terribly tragic, only 11 of the deaths were at the airport.

  6. @Pat: If TSA pre-check were to become ubiquitous, then so too would become complaints of “profiling” with regard to Pre-check. Inevitably, a large percentage of our governing class would quietly loosen the standards (such as they are) for Pre-check to the point that it was yet another meaningless bit of security theater. There’s an inherent problem with effectively screening potential threats when one of the threat indicators coincides with a constitutionally protected class.

    I will say this about security theater: the hassle is likely offset by some degree of inhibitory effect on the would-be terrorist. The TSA may have never found a bomb, but we also haven’t had any successful bombings or hijackings of US flights in recent years. Trying to prove that the TSA works is a bit like trying to prove that legal gun ownership can prevent crimes. If the crime never happens, how do you prove effectiveness? Generally you are left looking at correlation and guessing at causation.

  7. Shouldn’t the topic be “Thoughts on Today’s Terrible Brussels Airport Bombing” – or are your thoughts really that terrible?

  8. @Greg. Oh, only 11 killed and 81 injured at the airport by a homicide/suicide bomber? That’s a relief.

    And this is not an attack on Greg, but I am forever annoyed when atrocities that are committed are referred to as tragedies. The press loves this form of emotional distancing because it elides the actual problem, somebody motivated by something committed an atrocity.

  9. I give you credit for not naming this thread “You WON’T BELIEVE what’s going on at the Belgium Airport today”

  10. Not surprised at all. I often have wondered when the terrorists will start targeting non secure parts of airports. When I’m in long security lines like the ones I often encounter in Atlanta or Denver with more people than can fit on numerous planes all waiting together in these unsecured spots to be harrased by TSA it seem like we are sitting ducks for these types of attacks. All of us smooshed together make for easy mass terror scenes like this. I dont think the TSA can do much to prevent these things from happening. Especially since they have never caught even one suspected terrorist in their whole existance. What can we possibly do to protect each other from these unfortunate events?

  11. Following the lib playbook, radical Islam is not even mentioned in your piece. What can we do? Start by acknowledging the cause of the problem.

  12. @Billy D. To answer your question: nothing that is palatable to the West’s current leadership. Effective HumInt and SigInt might help identify potential terrorists. Effective border security might help keep them out. A Reformation in the Islamic world (both sacred and secular) might reduce their motivation to murder. Situational awareness is the best advice that I can come up with on an individual level. “See something, say something” or, in some cases, “see something, do something” isn’t bad advice.

    But they’re not “unfortunate events,” they are horrible atrocities. The term “unfortunate” implies that the folks at the airport or the metro just happened to be there when some guy just happened to explode. There’s a lot that you can do to avoid or protect yourself from “unfortunate” events. Protecting yourself and others from deliberate mass murder is a lot harder.

    Caveat to the above: any particular victim was himself “unfortunate” that he picked that particular day to go to the airport/metro.

  13. Gary in case you hadn’t noticed we already have WMD at “schools, court houses, stadiums” the only place lacking is movie theaters. I used to volunteer at Washington DC elementary and high schools and they all have WMD – sad to say much safer than Connecticut, Colorado etc. where there have been school shootings. In fact I can foresee the day when there are WMD scanners at all significant public places as demonstrated in Total Recall.

    I think you make a good point regarding the vulnerability at the horrendous TSA checkpoint lines (and for some airlines, the checkin lines) – that could easily be addressed through better technology and more intelligent screening, but the trend seems to be the wrong direction as airlines continue to cut costs by eliminating frontline jobs.

  14. @Pete Thnx for politicizing a non-political travel blog with your little thoughtless talking point that all of us heard a thousand times already. Within hours of an attack where people are ruthlessly killed it’s a shame you feel the need to get a little worthless dig in here.

  15. This is not exactly brain surgery or rocket science. At the Tokyo Narita airport, passports are checked at the airport entrance and luggage looked at, but not normally searched. At most airports anyone can walk to check in, baggage claim, or TSA entrance and set off an explosive device. I’ve thought about this possibility for years, but it hasn’t happened – yet.

    I fully expect the US to, as usual, overreact after the fact.

  16. Let’s start fighting the so-called “War on Terror” like we actually want and need to win it. Level Rakaa Syria tomorrow. If they establish another “de facto capital” level that too. Waterboard Abdehsalam, but substitute pig urine for the water. All captured enemy combatants should be emasculated upon capture; that way, if they ever go home in an Obama-esque “prisoner exchange,” they’ll go home wearing a burqha to celebrate their new life as a Muslim woman.

  17. Sorry, but I agree with Pete in that the time and place to try to stop such attacks is long before the suicide bomber decides to detonate himself in some crowded location. I still don’t think that most Americans can wrap their head around the thought that life is so miserable that a person is willing to strap a bomb to his body and blow himself up. I also agree with Gary that I’m more afraid of losing what little rights we have left in this country to a government that wants even more information. I obviously don’t know the answer to the balance between safety and privacy but I do know that the TSA is security theatre.

  18. @Pete

    For perspective – US terrorism deaths less than 20 per year: US gun related deaths 550 times that at nearly 10,000 per year.

    USA a country where over 40% of the population are so religiously radical that they believe in creationism over evolution.

    Spent my childhood in UK trying to avoid terrorist attacks: go “google” NORAID and see who was funding those terrorists…

  19. PS…Here is Australia the government recently passed (“metadata”) legislation such that we have largely devolved our personal freedoms. In the USA such surveillance has been beneficial in less than 1% of cases…

  20. @platy

    For perspective, 31 innocent people murdered this morning in Brussels. Of the 31, 100% were the victims of radical Islam.

    Your other points are irrelevant to the issue at hand.

  21. @ Pete

    My points are valid. US society is itself violent and religiously radical so if you have a concern about religious radicalism you should be far more worried about the sh-t going on on your own doorstep where you are killing each other in the 1,000s per year. Americans killing americans in schools, cinemas, shopping malls!

    Successive US governments have intruded upon many nations with hawkish and often military interventions, in the case of the Middle East to protect self interests in oil, the US oil companies being closely aligned your governments.

    The US went to war the second time in Iraq on the supposed and false premise of eliminating weapons of mass destruction with a result of an estimated 400,000 civilian casualties – are you so self righteous to believe that such actions don’t have consequences in terms of instilling hatred in others?

    Your own right wing campaigns on racial hatred and intolerance (just as ours does here in Australia). Seemingly right wing candidates like Trump can say anything, even statements which are easily factually disproved are lapped up by those folk wrapped up in their hatred.

    Even Ted Cruz has just made racist anti Muslim statements.

    What you gonna do – build a wall and eliminate anyone you are afraid off, not matter how rational your fears? It’s only 75 years since we saw that happen in Europe – that’s where your right wing politics is taking you…far more scary than any “atrocity” from IS.

    When you change your way of life, give up your freedoms, run around in a state of fear and hatred, the terrorists have won.

    Of course, you could copy Bush 2 and bomb / nuke anyone you don’t like into oblivion along the rabid remarks by MICHAEL FELDMAN above – but then how are gonna get that oil that your society is addicted to when you destabilise yet more nations (Iraq, Syria) – I doubt you’d care at all about the 100,000s innocent folk you’d obliterate in the process so are no better than the scum in IS.

  22. @Platy. “America is no better than ISIS.” Right. Go yourself.

    Explain to me how it is “racist” to acknowledge that Islam is currently producing a bumper crop of people who specifically intend to murder as many civilians as they can possibly manage. Paris, Brussels, Ft. Hood, San Bernardino, Madrid, New York, Marseille, Paris again, and on, and on. Each time the motive for murdering civilians is the same. Jihad.

    Also, feel free to point out any examples of presidential candidates “campaigning on racial hate.” Personally, I hate suicide/homicide bombers and the people who train and support them. Not because they are Muslims, but because they are murderers. Its just one of my personality quirks, I really hate GD murderers.

    I’m even fine and dandy with religious radicals that believe in creationism. Even Muslims! You and everybody else has the right to believe whatever you want. What you don’t have is the right to murder people because of it.

    Oh, and I like the quotes around “atrocity.” What would you call intentionally murdering innocent people in an airport, you ignorant twit?

  23. @platy, but of course, it’s raaaaacist if you object to Islamic jihadis murdering innocents.

    What can be done? First, identify the problem. Second, commit to eradicating the problem. Third, execute.

  24. @Pete

    You want to identify the problem…suggest you go read the analyses on the Paris / Belgian situation and the social realities that are driving folk to radicalism before making superficial conclusions. You might then put into geopolitical / historical context and come up with a smarter solution than bomb anybody you feel like. Driving folk to radicalism may well be the problem you seek – how you gonna confirm and control that process?


    It becomes racism when you denigrate a whole people on the basis of their faith or origin. Your statement itself “Islam is currently producing a bumper crop of people who specifically intend to murder as many civilians as they can possibly manage” is nonsense. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful loving folk. It becomes racism when your presidential candidate panders to your fear and ignorance by talking about banning Muslims from your country (you yourself espouse religious freedoms in your post). It becomes blind fear when Muslims are removed from aircraft supposedly for staring at a member of the cabin crew.

    Work out why some folk are becoming disaffected in society and thence radicalised and you may find some clues to controlling the situation.

    Of course the bombings are an atrocity…but so were the IRA bombs against the British (funded by Americans) and the massive civilian casualties in Iraq as a result of the US military actions.

    You might wanna listen to what your leading Republican “presidential” candidate one Donald Trump is saying to stir folk up…ironically, using the same technique as IS – appealing to the base fears and anger in folk who are disaffected…



    and the other GOP fall guy (“is he or isn’t actually, Canadian!”), Ted Cruz


    oh, and the point about creationism is that it demonstrates that almost half of Americans are radical and faith based, therefore not reliant on their powers of logic and critical thought…of course folk can think and believe whatever they want (until it impacts others) the problem you face is that your right wing has become intimately intertwined with such religious belief systems:


    Inciting fear, doubt, uncertainty is the playbook of the right wing (apparently they lack cogent policy on which to base a reasoned argument) – mixing that with uncritical religious belief the next step.

    Calling me an ignorant twit = personal abuse apparently instead of reasoned argument (another thing your presidential candidate Trump revels in – abusing others rather than discuss an issue) and because, perhaps, you are basing your responses on emotion (the anger that Trump is trying to harness).

    Yes, I’m annoyed too, I have friends in Brussels, I was brought up in London, scene of various terrorist acts over the years, but I would propose that we all have to be smarter than the responses espoused the US right wing, respecting its up to the good citizens of the US to decide who they want as their GOP candidate and ultimately the President.

    From an Australian TV presenter / academic Muslim in response to Paris:


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