So much is happening on the surface at the moment that it can be difficult to notice certain undercurrents. Since the following story has gone almost unheeded in the Anglophone press, let me point at one especially suggestive undertow which could be glimpsed in Europe this month.
Cast your mind back to March 2016 and you may remember a coordinated set of suicide bombings in Brussels: two at the airport, one at a metro station. The three ISIS-inspired terrorists managed to kill thirty-two people that day. But you may, understandably enough, have forgotten about it. The attacks came after the even larger ones in Paris, and people didn’t really have much to say about them. My principal memory is of being asked on to BBC Radio 4 the following evening to discuss the question of whether there are tensions between security and privacy — or some such bilge — and losing what remained of my patience.
The victims that morning included members of a school party heading to Rome. Unlike many of her classmates, Shanti De Corte was not among them. Miraculously, she didn’t sustain any physical injuries. But the seventeen-year-old was standing just a few feet from one of the suicide bombers at the airport and was severely traumatized by what she saw.
As it happens, nine defendants are on trial for their role in the attacks. The trial was delayed because of a controversy over the conditions in which they were due to appear: in individual closed glass cubicles. This seems to have been deemed inhumane by the Belgian authorities.
Whether being isolated in a self-enclosed glass cubicle is inhumane or not is the sort of row that Belgian justice excels at. Assuming at least some of the cell are found guilty, in due course there will doubtless be further rows about the conditions in which the prisoners are kept. One person who will not contribute to that discussion is Shanti De Corte.
In October the news was announced by her family and friends that on May 7 De Corte was euthanized on the authority of the Belgian state. A month earlier a panel of doctors and psychiatrists had judged that the PTSD and depression from which she suffered were incurable. She had requested euthanasia and they granted her request. So they killed her, or at least agreed to let her be put to death by lethal drugging in the decent and painless manner that the state allows. According to the official who oversaw the case, De Corte “was in such a state of mental suffering that her request was logically accepted.”
I have written here before about the oddity of euthanasia laws in Belgium and the Netherlands. Each time I have, people say: “You’re getting all slippery slope on us, Douglas.” And in some ways they’re right, as euthanasia clearly is a slippery slope — perhaps the slipperiest of all. If it weren’t, the countries that have legalized it wouldn’t be putting people to death because they suffer from depression and other mental illnesses. Incurable cancer is one thing. Degenerative disease among the very elderly is another. But putting young people down because of mental problems?
Of course, just one of the failures that the De Corte case shows is that of available treatments for PTSD and similar psychological trauma. The amount we know about how to deal with the damage caused by such an event as seeing your classmates blown apart in front of your eyes is at a very basic stage. Most likely the pain can never be wholly lifted. Religious faith could probably do something. There are therapies — including the use of specific, currently illegal drugs — which could likely alleviate the most severe symptoms. Yet, for a whole range of reasons, research is in its infancy and Western societies have proved much more adept at learning how to kill severely traumatized people than at learning to treat them.
In any case, none of the currently available treatments worked for Shanti De Corte. She reportedly said: “I wake up and take medicine for breakfast, then up to eleven anti-depressants a day. Without it I can’t live, but with all these pills I don’t feel anything anymore, I’m a ghost.” In a farewell message to her friends on Facebook she tried to be more positive. “It was a life of laughter and tears until the last day,” she wrote. “I loved it and have been allowed to know what true love is. I’m leaving in peace. Know that I already miss you.” She was twenty-three.
So six years on, the Belgian state has officially notched up the number of victims of the 2016 Brussels attacks to thirty-three people. Yet although De Corte was certainly a victim of the jihadis, it was Belgium that killed her. And there is something deeply strange, almost dystopian, in this.
After all, if the cell of nine people are convicted when they go on trial in November, what is the worst that any of them will suffer? A number of years in a Belgian jail, obviously. The worst offenders may find themselves there for life, joining the other Muslims who make up less than 10 percent of the country’s population but around 30 percent of its prison inmates.
But it would be impossible, of course, for Belgium to put any of the perpetrators to death. Belgian law, indeed European law, forbids any such thing. In certain states in the United States the death penalty exists — also by lethal drugging — but this is scorned by most Europeans, for we are beyond such barbarism. Executing a criminal would be illegal under the European Convention, the European Court of Justice and a whole slew of related laws and protocols. That’s because in the twenty-first century, Europe is so sophisticated that it is unacceptable to execute criminals. Executing their victims, by contrast, is not just acceptable but “logical.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2022 World edition.