This latest terrorist outrage for which ISIL claimed responsibility exhibits the new face of 21st century warfare for which there are no frontlines, no path to military victory, and acute civilian vulnerability.
As such, it represents a radical challenge to our traditional understanding of warfare, and unless responses are shaped by these realities, it could drive Western democracies step by step into a mental embrace and physical embodiment of fascist politics.
The attacks of March 22 in Belgium occurred in the departure area of the international airport in the town of Zaventem, seven miles outside Brussels and in the Maelbeek metro station in the heart of the city, near the headquarters of European Union.
Reports indicate that more than 30 persons were killed and as many as 230 wounded. It is not clear whether these figures include the ISIL suicide bombers who committed this atrocity against civilian innocence.
A kind of revenge
The timing of the attack makes it seem like a kind of revenge for the capture a few days earlier in Brussels of Salah Abdelslam, the accused mastermind of the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015.
It hardly matters whether this line of interpretation is confirmed or not. The essence of the event is one more deeply distressing challenge in a conflict that becomes ever more horrible, with ominous overtones for the future of human security the world over.
So far, the public utterances of the powerful have been articulated along predictable lines, and provide little evidence of an understanding of the distinctive realities of the situation and how best to cope with them. The prime minister of Belgium aptly called the attacks “blind, violent, cowardly”, and promising the resolve required to defeat the threat.
So far, the public utterances of the powerful have been articulated along predictable lines, and provide little evidence of an understanding of the distinctive realities of the situation...
Francois Hollande of France, never missing an opportunity to utter the obvious irrelevance, vowed “to relentlessly fight terrorism, both internationally and internally”.
What is missing from such responses is both tactical sensitivity to the originality of threat and a willingness to engage in self-scrutiny. From this perspective, the iconic conservative magazine, The Economist, does far better than political leaders.
It points out that the significance of the Brussels attack should be interpreted from a crucial policy perspective: the current limitations of national intelligence services to take preventive action that would alone protect society by identifying and removing threats in advance.
The Economist correctly stresses that it has become more important than ever to maximise international efforts to share all intelligence pertaining to the activities of violent extremists.
This new war
Although this shift from reactive to preventive approaches to defending the social order represents a fundamental reorientation toward the nature of security threats, and how to minimise their lethality, which is threefold: striking fear into the whole of society; creating a huge opening for repressive and irresponsible demagogues; and relying on reactive excessive force in distant countries that tends to spread the virus of violent extremism throughout the planet.
There are some deeper, overlooked aspects of the Brussels attack that need to be grasped with humility, and responded to by summoning the moral and political imagination to identify what works and what fails in this new era which places such a high priority on atrocity prevention as the source of the most widespread and intense forms of human insecurity.
First, and most significantly, this is an encounter that ignores boundaries, is not properly equated with traditional warfare between states, and is between new types of hybrid political actors.
On one side is a confusing combination of a transnational network of extremists and a self-proclaimed territorial caliphate targeting the most sensitive civilian targets in the West.
On the other side is a coalition of states led by the United States, which has foreign bases and navies spread around the world that seek to destroy ISIL and its allies wherever they are found.
Other versions of terror
Secondly, it is crucial to acknowledge that Western drones and paramilitary special forces operating in more than 100 states is an inherently imprecise form of state violence that spreads its own versions of terror among civilian populations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
It is necessary to realise that civilians in the West and the global South both regard themselves as victims of terror, which will continue to fuel the kind of hatred toward the enemy that offers a pretext for perpetual war.
What has totally changed, and is traumatising the West, is the retaliatory capacities and strategy of non-Western adversaries.
The colonial, and even post-colonial, patterns of intervention were all one-sided, with the combat zone reliably confined so as to avoid posing any threat to the security and serenity of Western societies. Now that the violence is reciprocal the equation has fundamentally changed.
Whether a creative diplomacy can emerge from this tangled web that exchanges an end to intervention for an end to terrorism is the haunting question that hangs over the human future. If it does, it will not come from government bureaucracies, but from intense pressures mounted by the beleaguered peoples of the world.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.