Belgians Seek Roots of Racist Crimes

A man lights a candle at the site in Antwerp where, the day before, a black-clad teenager killed a Malian babysitter and the white toddler in her care.
A man lights a candle at the site in Antwerp where, the day before, a black-clad teenager killed a Malian babysitter and the white toddler in her care. (By Yves Logghe -- Associated Press)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 20, 2006

ANTWERP, Belgium, May 19 -- When 18-year-old Hans Van Themsche was expelled from his boarding school dormitory for smoking, police officials here say, it pushed him over some existential edge. He shaved his head, bought a Winchester hunting rifle, put on a black leather trench coat and wrote a note saying he was going to kill foreigners. Then he went on a shooting rampage in the narrow cobblestone streets of this ancient port city.

First he shot and critically wounded a Turkish woman wearing a head scarf as she sat on a bench reading a book. Then he calmly walked down a street and turned his gun on a black, 24-year-old nanny from Mali and a 2-year-old white toddler in her care, killing them instantly.

Police say that a plainclothes officer caught up with Van Themsche a short time later. After the teenager ignored orders to drop his weapon, the officer shot him, wounding him in the stomach.

The May 11 rampage was the worst in a string of racially motivated crimes that have rocked Belgium in recent weeks. Mainstream politicians, religious leaders and human rights activists have warned about a dangerous rise of intolerance. Many of them blame that atmosphere on Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, a xenophobic and hugely popular separatist party in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. Members of Van Themsche's family hold prominent positions in the party.

"It was not only a racist murder but a political one, because the guy who did it was from the circles of an extreme right party and was influenced by their ideology," said Meryem Kanmaz, a political scientist at the University of Ghent's Center for Islam in Europe.

A swelling tide of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East is fueling frustration among the majority populations in countries across the continent. "Europe is not ready to accept that our societies are multicultural," Kanmaz said. "Today, the European identity is a European one and a Muslim one, too, and if they don't accept that, it leads to discrimination."

Vlaams Belang is the successor to Vlaams Blok, a Flemish party that was outlawed in Belgium two years ago on the grounds that it was a racist, criminal organization. Frank Vanhecke, the head of Vlaams Belang, condemned the May 11 killings and said opponents were trying to link them to his party to undermine its surging popularity before municipal elections in October.

"Nobody has the right to hold us morally responsible for these events," he told a party congress shortly after the shootings.

Some politicians and activists are using the murders to try to strip Vlaams Belang of the government funding received by every political party in Belgium. But analysts say that even as other parties express alarm at the group's growing appeal -- it received 24 percent of the vote in Flanders in 2004 elections -- they are moving closer to some of its xenophobic positions.

"Since 1994, other political parties, such as the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, have been saying the same sorts of things" against immigration, "so there is a validization of the racist way of seeing things," said Christian Desert, a spokesman for the Brussels-based Movement Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia.

"There is a social crisis here, like in other European countries," Desert said, "and if the politicians can't find political solutions, some try to find the solution with foreigners by saying they're the problem."

Philippe Van Der Sande, a Vlaams Belang spokesman, pointed to foreigners as the problem but said that the party had never advocated violence against them.

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