The Manchester Bombing
Last Monday evening a suicide bomber blew himself up in the foyer of the Manchester Arena as the audience was leaving a very popular concert: 22 deaths, some 65 injuries, many of them serious. The most intrinsically shocking aspect of the atrocity was that the target comprised children and teenagers. It happened fourteen miles from my front door, and during the past week I’ve made numerous phone calls to friends in our city, seeking reassurance that they and their families and friends haven’t been directly affected. As luck would have it, they haven’t, but indirectly affected is another matter. People are shaken. Several of my friends are choosing to avoid large gatherings and public transport. Children are bursting into tears spontaneously: almost every child in Greater Manchester knows someone who knows someone who was there.
Much has been said about the incident and Manchester’s (and Britain’s) admirable response to it. The police, the ambulance service, the hospital staff, the local politicians, community leaders, and compassionate members of the public who went out of their way to help, celebrities who’ve contributed generously to appeals for the victims and their families, have all been praised – rightly. Positive messages of “love not hate” have mingled with the vigils and displays of flowers. The police and security services have made dramatic inroads into a terror network of which Monday’s bomber was the outward and visible sign, and we all have cause to be grateful to them.
Much less has been made of the dark underside of the aftermath: a doubling in the incidence of hate crime during the pat week, vile graffiti, racist abuse. One close friend, a black woman, told me today that since Monday she’s felt safer in an area with a high concentration of Muslims than in the predominantly white city centre. Some people can’t grasp the idea that this sort of reaction is exactly what terrorists want to evoke, so they’re playing right into the hands of those they vilify. “Unable to do joined-up thinking” is putting it mildly. I wonder who fastens their shoelaces for them.
Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslims abhor the perpetrators of these so-called jihadi attacks; they’re as much at risk from them as the rest of the community. Half a millennium ago, the overwhelming majority of Christians abhorred the Inquisition and its minions, who were a threat to everyone. It seems to me that this analogy merits further examination.
As I understand it, the self-styled jihadis want to destroy the Western way of life, which they hate. They hate the Western values of democracy, freedom, equality and tolerance, and of course they hate our trend towards secularism. It’s hard for many of us to understand this attitude because our values seem to us to be unequivocally good, and only someone with a twisted mind and perverted ethics could think otherwise. But unless we try to overcome this prejudice, we won’t even come close to understanding those who wish to be our enemies; and how can you defeat an enemy you can’t understand when the battlefield is cultural rather than physical?
This, I think, is where the quasi-parallel between the “Islamic extremist” present and the “Christian extremist” past might prove illuminating. Consider how the majority in our own countries half a century ago – native-born white Britons, for instance – would have viewed the values we hold dear today, and the way those values are manifested in our political debates and our society at large. That majority in the early 1960s would have been appalled by the idea that women could enjoy the same employment and other rights as men (at least in principle), shocked and revolted by the tolerance of homosexuality – to say nothing of gay marriage – and disturbed by the casual attire, the piercings, the tattoos and the widespread disrespect for secular and ecclesiastical authority found among our younger people. They’d have deemed our society in urgent need of moral reform. Now consider the attitudes that our forebears of a hundred years ago would have taken towards us; those of two hundred years ago; those at the time of Shakespeare… And if they’d had access to the equipment required for suicide bombing, wouldn’t an extreme minority of those forebears – maybe the marginalised and disadvantaged among them, maybe some of the more educated but nevertheless gullible – have attacked us using the means we associate with today’s terrorists?
Obviously I’m not condoning any sort of outrage of the kind we saw in Manchester last week. But I do believe that if we compare the state of our culture today with the culture of our country a few centuries ago, we can start to gain an understanding of the mind-set of the perpetrators. And a start to understanding their mind-set is a step towards defeating them.
Meanwhile, we continue to grieve for the victims.