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Opinion Belgian minister’s statement revives talk of ‘no-go zones’

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Paris attacks is shown Monday at the Place de la Republique in Paris. (Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The New York Times didn’t use the term that shall not be uttered. But the headline of this story from yesterday afternoon suggested it: “Belgian Minister Says Government Lacks Control Over Neighborhood Linked to Terror Plots,” wrote Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura and Milan Schreuer.

Jan Jambon, the Belgian home affairs minister, said that authorities do no “have control of the situation in Molenbeek.” Molenbeek is a Brussels borough that, according to the Guardian, is “becoming known as Europe’s jihadi central.” Two of the assailants from Friday night’s Paris attacks were French nationals who had resided in Molenbeek, prosecutors have said. Five arrests were made in Molenbeek in connection with the attacks, Reuters reported.

Molenbeek has also had connections with other terrorist incidents, including the attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train last summer that was snuffed out by U.S. servicemen.

So, is Molenbeek a “no-go zone”? The Independent seems to think so: “Paris terror attacks: Visiting Molenbeek, the police no-go zone that was home to two of the gunmen.” NewsBusters, a blog that dogs the mainstream media, appears to think it qualifies: “Two Paris Terrorists Lived in Supposedly Mythical ‘No-Go Zone’ Neighborhood in Brussels.”

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Don’t be surprised, however, if few other media organizations adopt this three-word descriptor, given the embarrassment sustained by Fox News earlier this year. Following the January Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, commentators on the most-watched cable news network repeatedly decried these broken-down places. Steve Emerson, a guest analyst on “Justice With Judge Jeanine” on Jan. 10, hatched a precise definition: “They’re sort of amorphous, they’re not contiguous necessarily, but they’re sort of safe havens. And they’re places where the governments, like France, Britain, Sweden, Germany — they don’t exercise any sovereignty so you basically have zones where Sharia courts are set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where police don’t go in.” For specificity, Emerson cited Birmingham, England.

The thinking spread across Fox News programs. An edition of “Fox & Friends” showed a map of French no-go zones/neighborhoods. Nor was Fox News alone — many other outlets, including CNN, spoke about the no-go phenomenon. Fox News admirably corrected the record, as did CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Emerson endured a very public debunking.

Jambon’s statement about Molenbeek may raise concerns that such correctional activity may have gone too far. If the home minister says that the government has lost control over a certain neighborhood, then isn’t it a “no-go zone,” for all intents and purposes?

Not according to the Los Angeles Times, which, like many news organizations, sent a reporter into this zone after the Paris attacks. “Despite its tainted reputation, Molenbeek is not a place that seems especially threatening,” writes Patrick J. McDonnell. “The sprawling district includes areas with both run-down apartment buildings and middle-class homes. The feeling here is completely unlike that found in some of the Paris suburbs, which have long been known as incubators of Islamist radicals — including all three perpetrators in the Charlie Hebdo killings.” The Guardian: “The two streets where the weekend raids took place are anything but ghettoes or banlieues, home to restless and hostile throngs of Muslim youths. Both are neat and tidy lower middle-class concentrations of owner-occupied houses and decent apartments with their fair share of green spaces and handsome villas.”

Clearly, Belgian authorities have a better grip on the problems of Molenbeek than reporters who tour the place for a story following the Paris attacks. Whatever their contentions about a breakdown of governmental order, however, the term “no-go zone” is best left in retirement. Does it mean just a place of high crime? A place where sharia courts rule? A place that harbors jihadist cells? All of the above? Foreign correspondents are skilled enough to describe troubled neighborhoods without the use of catchphrases.