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Lessons learned from a terror attack in an otherwise peaceful country

• Apr 9, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Three weeks ago, Utrecht, the Netherlands, had its first terror attack in any of my neighbors’ histories, in any of my neighbors’ parents’ histories.

The violence happened on a late morning tram, roughly 3 miles from our home. There were three victims. It took hours for the shooter to be caught.

The attack brought the city to a halt — university closed its doors, trains stopped. The attack sent ripples throughout the country.

I know this because I was already in Amsterdam on a school visit and, within minutes of the shooting, the students let me know there was an attack in the very city from which I traveled. Immediately, I excused myself to make some initial texts to Nikki and the girls. They had no reason to be in the attack area — really, it made no logical sense to be concerned — but I found that I couldn’t calm myself down until a minute or two passed and I received the text back letting me know they were safe in the house.

The girls, on order from the mayor, simply locked the door and hunkered down in our home. Nikki was straightforward and honest with our daughters. She talked about the news stories of this kind we have at home, but how it was different being in the city where it was happening. She allowed our daughters to feel how they felt — anxious, scared, concerned, sad. There is no sugarcoating this kind of day.

Nikki and I agreed, through text, that it would be best if I just stayed in Amsterdam until the shooter was caught. Another one of the mayor’s orders was to stay out of crowded areas in Utrecht, and Utrecht Centraal is as crowded as it gets in this city of almost 350,000.

For the rest of the day, I sent texts to caring family and friends from Michigan as they were waking up to the news. I tried to make the best of the day by dipping into a museum, but it was impossible to focus due to my own fuzzy thoughts of all my newly made Dutch friends who were having their own questions with this shocking news of an otherwise peaceful, tolerant city.

Finally, at around 4 p.m., the news broke that the shooter had been found and that public buildings, including the train stations, were going to open up. It was time to go home. There was a cloud of anxiety and the fresh air of community when rolling into Centraal Station: the armed guards of the military were the anxiety, the huddles of people clearly consoling each other were the fresh air.

I’m not sure I have ever biked so quickly as I did from Centraal to home. I just wanted a hug from my family. I needed that hug.

We ended that chaotic day at our neighbors’ house. All day long they had been checking in on the “Americans next door” and translating news stories to keep us posted on what was happening. Finally, with a glass of wine, we all discussed our stories of the day: the professor husband was in lockdown with his students the entire day, the marketing wife was out of the city at work, glued to her computer screen and worried sick for her husband.

Of course, the ramifications of such a day don’t end with the next sunrise, do they? As it happened, I traveled about 45 minutes to a school in Zevenaar, just outside of Arnhem, two days later. It was a national election day and I was speaking with two young women about their experiences as they got ready to vote in their first-ever election. The shooting in Utrecht undeniably raised concerns. The two found themselves confused about race, religion and nationality — both concerned for their fellow Dutch, and also understanding the need for tolerance.

Fear rocks us on our heels and has a tendency to force us into too-quick judgments — illogical judgments, really, looping an entire group to the actions of one individual.

That was the main point — these are the actions of one, not one group — that Nikki and I wanted to make with our own girls when we made sure they rode their bikes through city center the day after the attack, back into the heart of the peaceful and beautiful city we’ve been calling home the past three months.

About the writer: Spring Lake High School teacher David Theune received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Through the grant, Theune and his family are spending five months living in the Netherlands and writing about his adventure for the Tribune.

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