Belgium yet again in turmoil over killings

In the night between May 6th and 7th 2006 five skinheads, coming from De Kastelein, a known extreme right café in West Flanders, beat up Raphaël Mensah, a fifty year old Parisian artist of Gabonese descent, and his thirty seven year old Belgian friend Alain Bouillon. Bouillon was heavily wounded and Mensah is now lying in a coma. According to Bouillon “the skinheads weren’t after money, they went after us because my friend has the wrong skin colour”. In fact, according to Belgian French-language La Dernière Heure, Mensah’s wallet was recovered on the crime scene with the 150 euros he carried on him still in it.

On May 11th, in an Antwerp street very close to where I used to live, an 18-year old man, Hans Van Themsche, went on a killing spree. His first victim, 46-year old Sonhul Koç, a Turkish woman who was sitting on a park bench reading a book, was heavily wounded. Van Themsche had shot her in the back from a distance of six meters (6.5 yards).

The second and third victims were both killed. They were a 24-year old Malinese woman called Oulemata Niangadou who worked as an au pair and the little Belgian girl she was looking after, two year old Luna. Van Themsche had spotted Oulemata and Luna walking down the street, he passed them, turned around and fired at them, in theirs backs, from point blank range. When he was later questioned about his motive for killing the little girl, he is reported to have said: “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. In all it took Van Themsche just four minutes to destroy three lives. He was stopped by a policeman who arrived at the scene and shot Van Themsche, apparently a willing target since he shouted “just shoot me”, in the stomach. Van Themsche is now in the hospital, but he will survive.

What possessed Van Themsche, who had no previous criminal records at all and was by all accounts an intelligent and decent young man, to commit such a heinous crime? Well, according to Belgian Dutch-language newspaper De Standaard Van Themsche had written a farewell letter, another indication that he planned to die, in which he thanked his parents for all that they had done for him. He also wrote that he hoped his three younger brothers would be happier without him. He did not mention extreme right wing politics in his farewell letter and neither did he particularly single out the school he was to be expelled from. To police offers questioning him he declared that he wanted to be a skinhead.

It is noteworthy that he had only shaven his head on the morning of Thursday 11th, the day of the killings, after he found out he would be expelled from his boarding school for smoking in his bedroom. On that same morning he took a train to Antwerp. In Antwerp, at a quarter to ten, he entered a weapon store to choose a hunting rifle. He left the store and returned forty five minutes later with the money. Back on the streets he threw away the packaging material and loaded the gun. The eventual shootings would occur between 11.49 and 11.53 hours.

So, we have a farewell letter indicating Van Themsche had serious emotional problems – why would his brothers be better off without him? – and a timeline suggesting that he had rather suddenly decided to act because something, the expulsion maybe, had finally tipped him over the edge. In short, a longer history of emotional disturbance combined with an impulsive decision to finally act inspired by a tipping point. This is corroborated by a fellow student who said Van Themsche told him “he would commit suicide if he were to be expelled from school, but not without first taking ten foreigners with him”.

This guy externalised his obvious self-hatred. His statement that he wanted “to take ten foreigners with him” indicates clearly that he thought the cause of killing foreigners worthy enough to rationalise his own problems with Thanatos. He wanted to end his life and he wanted others to share in his own misery. Others that deserved it, others that were foreigners.

I’ll leave it up to the psychologists to further dissect Van Themsche’s inner life, all the more because we do not know everything about it yet. What interests me right now is his choice to kill foreigners. What informed this choice? Why did becoming a skinhead appeal to him so much? You know, skinheads like those who assaulted Raphaël Mensah and Alain Bouillon.

To police he said he had been ragged by foreigners when he attended school in Antwerp and that he wanted revenge. Yet his parents, completely stunned by the events, have told De Standaard that they could not believe that their son had killed out of racism. They said he even had foreign friends.

Some people in the press have focussed on his family’s ties with Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang. His aunt, Frieda Van Themsche is a Vlaams Belang MP and his whole family seems to have been deeply involved with Flemish nationalism. Yesterday BBC News had an article, entitled Far-right ties in Belgian murders, linking the murders to the far-right environment of Van Temsche:

Police say Mr Van Themsche’s father helped found the now defunct anti-immigration party Vlaams Blok, and his aunt is an MP for its successor, Vlaams Belang.

Still, none of the family’s children have ever been involved with the far-right Flemish Nationalist Youth (VNJ) movement. In various news reports they are described as a decent, law-abiding family.

In any case Vlaams Belang, which has issued a statement formally condemning the murders and calling Van Themsche a “deranged criminal”, is being blamed for having created an atmosphere of hate that lead, albeit indirectly, to the murders. Progress Lawyers Network, who describe themselves as “progressive lawyers”, have issued a press statement (pdf) in which they lay the blame squarely at the feet of Vlaams Belang and, in particular, Paul Belien of the right wing weblog The Brussels Journal. As Paul Belien himself explains:

Following Hans Van Themsche’s killing spree, however, his aunt is guilty by association, and so is the entire party. The Belgian government has strongly condemned the shootings, describing them as an extreme form of racism. Guilty, too, is this website because the writer of this article happens to be married to another VB member of parliament. Today a far-left organisation, the Progress Lawyers Network (PLN), attacked The Brussels Journal in a press release, and demanded that “Paul Belien be prosecuted for his recent publications.” (…) Following the recent murder of Joe Van Holsbeeck I wrote that citizens should be allowed the right to bear arms (specifically mentioning peppersprays) if the authorities are no longer able to guarantee public safety. According to Belgian law it is illegal to buy, possess and carry pepperspray, although this is a purely defensive weapon which, if Joe Van Holsbeeck had been allowed to use it, might have saved his life.

For those who haven’t followed this, it is about a supposed “call to arms” from certain VB members. Filip Dewinter, for example, has called for “the right to an armed response” to robbery, etc. Not exactly a call to kill foreigners, but some people see in this a first step to officially sanctioned violence not only against criminals but also against foreigners.

Now, to what extent was Hans Van Themsche really influenced by all this? We really do not know yet. Personally, I do not believe he was inspired by the right-to-an-armed-response call and I certainly do not think his aunt or his parents can be blamed for his crimes. At least, not unless more damaging evidence is presented. Guilty-by-association is not good enough.

Was Hans Van Themsche influenced by far-right ideology? Yes, since he wanted to become a skinhead and kill foreigners. But it is not sure this violent aspect came directly from his family. Is far-right ideology, in this case Vlaams Belang, responsible for poisoning his apparently unstable mind to such an extent that it would have inevitably led to murder, just like video games or heavy metal are sometimes blamed for violence, or is this just a hugely unfortunate yet isolated case of madness?

I’ll leave that question unanswered until we have more information about this. In the meantime the comments are open for debate. In any case, I am afraid to his victims and their friends and relatives it will all seem pretty senseless in the end…

PS: I am aware that most links in this post point to Dutch-language articles, they are provided for those who understand Dutch, but I simply do not have the time to translate them all. If any information I gleened from them is wrongly represented, I am sure some native speakers of Dutch will correct me in the comments section.

UPDATE PS: I have fixed the links, they worked in preview mode but not when published. BTW, the links referring to De Standaard have disappeared behind the subscription wall.

14 thoughts on “Belgium yet again in turmoil over killings

  1. Note that this Paul Beliën has called for Belgians to carry arms to fight the “predators”:

    “De roofdieren hebben tanden en klauwen. De roofdieren hebben messen. Van kleinsaf hebben ze tijdens het jaarlijkse offerfeest geleerd hoe ze warmbloedige kuddedieren moeten kelen. Wij worden misselijk wanneer we bloed zien, maar zij niet. Zij zijn getraind, zij zijn gewapend. Wij mogen niet eens een pepperspray op zak hebben. Zij hebben knip- en slagersmessen en ze weten hoe ze die moeten gebruiken.”

    Which is not far from calling to do exactly that what Van Themsche did…

    The VB may not have the ultimate responsibility for these murders, but they clearly helped foster the climate in which they were carried out.

  2. This Van Tesmche thing is like Falling Down in real life.

    Guy, you might want to provide links to babelfish or the google transtor.

    I babelfished the quote above, and it’s rather chilly: The carnivore has cogs and clutches. The carnivore has messen. Of kleinsaf they have learned during the annual offerfeest how they must cut the throat of warm-blooded herd animals. We become sick when we do not see blood, but they. They have been trained, they have been armed. We can not even a PEP by Spray on pocket have. They have knip – and butcher slagersmessen and they know how they must use that.

  3. There was a guy in the Czech Republic who was recently sentenced to a lifetime prison for killing five or six people without any apparent reason. His father was (or still is) a highly positioned officer at the NATO HQ in Brussells. Which means that:

    1. Being close relative to a public servant means higher risk of becoming a serial killer.
    2. Being in any association with Belgium causes higher risk of becoming a serial killer.
    3. All of the above.
    4. None of the above.

    With the analogy to Van Themsche, either 1 or 2 or both is true, correct?

    You leftists are so weak in logic.

  4. ‘Falling Down,’ for sure. Throw in the shaven head and a feeling that society is going to hell in a hand basket and then you’ve got ‘Taxi Driver’ as well.

  5. This can’t be. The USA is supposed to be the only racist nation on the planet.

  6. If the press is any guide, the weight of this is falling on the VB. Of course, one of the problems in Belgium is that the press isn’t a really good guide. BTW, whose brilliant idea was it for the VB to put their headquarters in Sint-Josse-ten-Node, the commune with the highest percentage immigrants in Belgium?

    I note, with irony, how crimes committed by immigrants are subject to collective responsibility for the far right, while crimes by white people are purely a matter of persona responsibility.

  7. Does the VB have a position on the death penalty? And to they generally present themselves as a law-and-order party? Since I don’t follow Belgian politics, these are not rhetorical questions.

    A question that is a bit more rhetorical: For any commenters here not inclined to see a connection between the VB and these murders, what do they think (or did they think at the time) of connections between Italy’s communists and the Red Brigades? Or between the left wing of the German SPD and the Rote Armee Fraktion?

  8. “Does the VB have a position on the death penalty? And to they generally present themselves as a law-and-order party? Since I don’t follow Belgian politics, these are not rhetorical questions.”

    VB does present itself as a law-and-order party and as a party defending family values. I do not know where they stand on the death penalty, they do not mention it in their party programme.

    One of their raisons d’être is an independent Flanders. Even when they have been focussing on immigration in the past couple of years, it has never been off their political agenda and I have a feeling separatism is fast becoming one of their major campaign issues again.

    It is important to know they are more than just a “racist party”. They present themselves as the true defenders of Flemish interests. Financially, culturally, socially and politically. At least, in their campaigns and official publications. That is why Verhofstadt is playing a dangerous game by blaming them for the Van Themsche murders. Most people I have spoken to do NOT blame VB and if Verhofstadt is seen as playing a cynical game of strategy, that might very well play into the hands of VB.

    If you blame them, make sure you are on target and have clean hands yourself. I am not at all an apologist for VB, but I have seen the demonisation strategy backfire before. And do not forget VB has been in the opposition their entire history, they are battle-hardened and know to press the correct buttons (like any political party) at the right moments.

    Today there was a Belgian professor on French tv who said the average profile of a VB-voter is solidly middle-class and consists of people who are afraid to lose what they have. This explains, for example, why VB is popular with people who want an independent Flanders (ie no longer subsidising Wallony). It is not just about racism.

  9. “This explains, for example, why VB is popular with people who want an independent Flanders (ie no longer subsidising Wallony).”

    Better: This explains “partly” why VB is popular with “a number of people” in the middle-class segment of the population.

  10. No, the Vlaams Belang is not just about racism. Sometimes it’s about ethnocentrism and middle class paranoia.

    I do understand fear of losing what you have. I generally try to stand behind the people who have those kinds of fears, but my support is conditional, and among the conditions are recognizing that your neighbours are probably just as scared as you are. Any “Flemish interest” that is different from the interests of the people who have to live with Flanders is simply a scam. I’m pretty sure it’s not my interests they have in mind.

    For a long time, the strategy against the VB has been to do nothing, address none of the reasons why so many people are scared of losing what they have, and hope the problem would go away. This has not been working. Letting them into government would make Belgium a visibly worse off place. I suppose there’s always confronting Belgians with their prejudices – there was an entire chapter in my Dutch curriculum about prejudices and dealing with them, maybe Flemings need the same training – but somehow telling Flemings that they all share the blame probably won’t earn anyone votes. Somehow, the idea that their favourite scapegoats have nothing to do with their problems is a message that doesn’t ever sink in.

    I’m beginning to think there might be something to calls to end mandatory voting. I’ll bet a lot of the VB voters would just as soon stay home.

    But instead, Flemings are going to talk about gun control. Dewinter has already beaten a hasty retreat from the VB’s earlier calls to reduce gun controls. In the States, I always used to respond to both pro- and anti-gun arguments with “Guns don’t kill people; Americans kill people. Mandatory licensing for Americans now!” Racism is not white trash with guns; racism is systemic oppression. Racism is when you can’t get into a nightclub in Antwerp on a Friday night because your skin is too dark and then when you go to a mosque, people suspect you of being a terrorist.

    De Morgen quoted an elderly Antwerpenaar in its Sunday edition, saying that the refugees coming to Belgium now are not doing anything different than what she did fleeing the Luftwaffe in 1940. So, I have a little hope.

    Sorry to sound so bitter. It’s just that there are a lot of moments lately when I want to take this entire country and slap it upside the head. Usually it’s just in traffic, or when Belgians have to line up for something. If there is a people less capable of organizing a queue, I am hard pressed to think of who they could be. Or sometimes, when I have to deal with the Belastingsdienst who still won’t acknowledge that I live in Brussels and should damn well be able to use French forms.

    But lately, it’s been whenever I buy a newspaper. I guess it’s the price of finally getting involved in local affairs.

  11. Motive behind the killings is clear. Its not money,its racism. The problem lies within the society and its system and not with the victims. They r just made the scapegoats to show anger.
    What kind of punishment is lying for VB?

  12. Well the only mistake the killer made was not having signed with the American or British Army. They offer contracts of variabale length and even free introductory lessons plus transport to the killing zone.

  13. The independant media in Belgium is controlled by the left-wing & far-left. What to say more?