Skinhead Rampage Highlights Belgium's Race Anxiety

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Acts of racist violence can and do happen anywhere. But the ominous context of a deadly rampage this week in Antwerp has left Belgians anxious about the state of ethnic relations in their prosperous but heterogeneous country.

On Thursday, 18-year-old Hans Van Themsche donned a long black leather coat, purchased a hunting rifle, and then, in broad daylight, started stalking identifiable foreigners in Belgium's second city. First, he shot and wounded a woman of Turkish descent who had been sitting on a public bench, reading a book. Then Van Themsche killed a pregnant Malian babysitter and the native Belgian two-year-old for whom she was caring. His hunt for further victims was stopped only when a police officer shot him in the stomach after he refused to drop his weapon.

Van Themsche had shaved his head just days before his shooting spree. But a note later recovered from his home by police suggests that his racist politics was more deeply rooted. His father had been a founding member of the Vlaams Blok, the anti-immigration, Flemish separatist party renamed Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, in 2004 in a bid to broaden its appeal. His aunt, Frieda Van Themsche, is a VB member of the Belgian parliament. And VB is no fringe party: it got 24% of the Flemish vote in 2004 regional elections, making it the largest party in Flanders, Belgium's biggest and most prosperous region.

The Vlaams Belang immediately condemned the murders, demanding "the heaviest possible punishment for the murderer" and declaring that "such disturbed criminals ought to have no place in our community." But other politicians and commentators were quick to connect the murders to VB's xenophobic policies. "These horrible and cowardly crimes are a form of extreme racism," said Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. "No one can ignore what the far right can lead to." Whether such charges will erode the VB's appeal, or give it a new underdog allure, is still not clear.

The murders come just days after three skinheads beat up a French citizen of African origin in the Flemish city of Bruges. Racial tensions were also evident last month when the whole country was transfixed by the murder of 17-year-old Joe van Holsbeeck, killed in Brussels' central train station by two assailants who were after his MP3 player. For days, witnesses told the media that the perpetrators had been youths of North African origin. But after ten days, police fingered two Poles for the murder, one of whom has fled to Poland and awaits extradition.

"It's intellectually unfair to blame the act of a lunatic on a political party, whatever his family ties to the Vlaams Belang," says Carl Devos, a political scientist at the University of Ghent. "But the VB is responsible for creating an atmosphere and popularizing the theme of racial tension." He worries that such racially-charged crimes are eroding tolerance in a country that can't exist without it. "It's not like we're living in Beirut," he says. "But we are losing control."