Sunday, April 23, 2006

Joe Van Holsbeeck

Brussels Journal, an excellent wide-awake European blog, notes something missing from the coverage of the mass marches in response to the death of a Belgian teen in a senseless crime:

Today, some 80,000 people participated in a silent march in Brussels to commemorate 17 year old Joe Van Holsbeeck, who was knifed on 12 April because he refused to hand over his MP3 player to two North African youths. The murder happened during the evening rush hour in a crowded Brussels central station. The murderers were filmed by security cameras, but it took a full week before the authorities released the footage. The assassins are still at large.

But the writer notes that the initial BBC report "does not mention the ethnicity of the assassins." The BBC, in a later write-thru seems to have worked the ethnic angle in, far down in the story, in a highly deflecting and politically correct way:

Fears of racial tension have been high as the killers appear from the CCTV footage to be of North African origin but his mother appealed for calm.

"Don't ask me to hate all Arabs," she said in an interview with Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure.

"The youths that killed my son are thugs but don't generalise."

Some Muslim religious leaders in Brussels called for people to turn in the suspects if they knew them.

I went looking for this story on the Associated Press wire tonight. I found pictures, and a story, but no mention at all of the ethnicity of the killers in any of this.

This is exactly the kind of denial Bruce Bawer is talking about.

Before you misidentify me as some race-baiter who wants to go back to the old days in America when headlines said things like "Negro rapes white girl," realize that ethnicity -- the unassimilated and angry Muslim immigrant population of Belgium -- is the reason there is a mass march in Brussels today, and ethnicity is the reason that boy is dead. How much more newsworthy all this would be if the BBC and the AP had confronted that unpleasant fact? Brussels Journal shows them the way:

In fact, the initiative for the march came from Fouad Ahidar, a Moroccan-born Flemish member of the Brussels regional parliament, who said last week that many immigrants are equally worried about violent Moroccan youth gangs.

Ahidar, a father of five, already called for a protest march on 15 April, saying that if the victims had been immigrants and not Belgians, “or even if an immigrant just gets a few kicks from police officers, half of Brussels would be on the streets in solidarity with the victim.” According to the Moroccan-born MP, anti-Belgian racism is rife among Muslim street gangs. “This murder stinks of racism,” he said. “There is a growing group of criminal Moroccan and Turkish youths who go after victims who look like infidels. We have to fight racism in all its varieties, whether by the immigrants or the native community.” What Ahidar says is common knowledge but only he may say so. If a native Belgian makes such comments he or she risks being taken to court for racism by the authorities’ racism watchdog CEOOR, an instrument used by the government parties to silence political opponents.

UPDATE: As it turns out, the Belgian police now have arrested a Polish youth, and suspect that the other suspects are Polish, too. See here and especially here:

Jos Colpin, the spokesman of the office of the public prosecutor in Brussels, apologized because his office did officially accuse “two North Africans” on 13 April, whereupon the terminology was adopted in the Belgian press (and also by The Brussels Journal on 19 April). “We did this on the basis of witnesses’ accounts,” Colpin explained, “because almosts all statements [by witnesses] mentioned North Africans or culprits with North African features.”

So it turns out the statement above, "ethnicity is the reason that boy is dead," is wrong, based on wrong information from the Belgian authorities. But the bulk of this post, any my main concern in writing it, was the media coverage of the story in the period when the suspects had officially been identified as North Africans. That coverage was based on what was known at the time (i.e., none of the media cited made or makes any claim to have information not known to the authorities to suggest the suspect ID was wrong). It's still a worthwhile topic for comment, whatever the facts of the tragedy itself.