by Aaron Peck

In Belgium, there is a law stating that police are forbidden from entering or searching a private residence from 9pm until 5am. On 16 December 2015, the New York Times reported that Belgian officials admitted that this law may have given Salah Abdeslam, the only known surviving participant in the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015, the time to escape arrest, fleeing a house that had been scheduled for a raid the following morning.

In the months of searching for Abdeslam, there was a menacing aspect to the sound of any car accelerating down a narrow street at night where streetlamps cast an orange light. Humans, in many of our forms, are scarier than the supernatural. The French avant-garde adventure novelist Pierre Mac Orlan, who wrote stories of serial killers, con-men, thieves, spies, corrupt police, and outlaws, coined the phrase “the social fantastic” to describe stories that reflect a world haunted by everyday horrors. The lack of a curfew — or in certain cases the imposition of one — can only heighten that fact.

Abdeslam’s escape from a police raid, due to that peculiar law, is far from the only instance when police have botched proceedings. Another legendary case involves the murderer and rapist Marc Dutroux. In 1996, in one of the communes of Charleroi, in the cellar underneath a house owned by him, two kidnapped girls starved to death. Dutroux — who had already served three years from 1989 to 1992 for the abduction and rape of five other girls—used a series of vacant houses throughout the city, purchased with money made from various criminal schemes, to imprison, starve, torture, rape, and then videotape girls aged between 8 and 19. “When Dutroux,” writes Tony Judt, “...was questioned by police at his home, the house (where the children were hidden and still alive) was never searched.” Incompetence and complicity often resemble each other. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Dutroux was protected by authorities. In 2003, when Dutroux was finally charged for the death of four young girls, including the two who had starved to death in a cellar, he insisted that he did not act alone but was part of a network. As of 2002, according to a BBC report, twenty witnesses of the case had died under mysterious circumstances.

The Dutroux Affair is one instance in a longer, chilling history. In Pauvre Belgique, Charles Baudelaire collected clippings from local newspapers, including the following from the Écho de Bruxelles, 5 August 1864:

The Court of Ardennes presided over an affair of incest and infanticide that displayed unbelievable cruelty: Jean-Baptiste Périn and his sister were accused of having killed their newborn baby. After having strangled it, they apparently boiled it, then fed the flesh to a pig and threw the bones in an oven. [...] The jury retired to make deliberations around half past noon. They adjourned three hours and fifteen minutes later with a verdict of acquittal for Léonie and guilt for Périn, but only under attenuating circumstances. The court sentenced Périn to hard labour in perpetuity.

In a comment following the clipping, Baudelaire notes: Rape of an infant of fourteen months, although his source for that second crime goes uncited. And then later: A father gets drunk. He castrates his son.

From the lockdown of 21-25 November 2015 until Abdeslam’s arrest in 18 March 2016, a heightened surrealism floated over life in Brussels. The public was urged to stay away from windows; residents responded by flooding Twitter with pictures of cats. That same weekend, two women and eight men from both the army and local police forces were reported to have had an orgy in the Ganshoren police station in the Brussels-Capital Region after 10pm. A month later the news agencies that originally ran the story posted a correction: the police declared it unfounded, claiming that it originated from jealous officers who had not been invited to a small but apparently wholesome farewell gathering.

A few days after Abdeslam’s arrest, on 22 March suicide bombers attacked the Brussels International Airport and the Maalbeek Metro station. Months before, the police allegedly thwarted an attack against one of the country’s nuclear facilities. Various sources reported that a few employees had been identified as having potential ties to the Islamic State and subsequently fired. But more terrifying than the allegations of a foiled terrorist plot on a nuclear power plant is a far more banal worry: Seventy “micro-cracks” have been discovered at Tihange 2, a reactor in eastern Belgium. The state aims to shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2025, but it is currently off target and has asked the European Union for an extension to the deadline. Until these reactors are shut down, much of the country relies on power from reactors with fissures that could bloom into cracks.

This universal ugliness, Baudelaire writes, disturbs like an indefinite and permanent danger. As of 2018, Marc Dutroux continues to petition for early release, and Abdeslam is one year into a twenty-year sentence. The nuclear reactor is still deteriorating. In case of a meltdown, iodine pills are available for free to anyone who asks at any Belgian pharmacy.

Aaron Peck’s work has recently appeared in The Walrus, The New York Review of Books Daily, and Frieze magazine. He is working on a book about Baudelaire and Brussels.

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