It is an inescapable truth of news coverage that events closer to home garner greater attention than those in distant lands. The comedian Simon Amstell once suggested that on the other side of the world news reports about a tragedy should conclude “but, you didn’t know any of them!”.
For many, their first year of university is also the first time in their life spent with friends scattered across the country. This was certainly my experience. So, on the 22 of May last year, as I watched the BBC news coverage change from reports of a gas explosion in Manchester to reports of a deadly terror attack outside the Manchester Arena, it was only gradually that a sense of detached anger waned, and I began that unpleasant process of mentally listing all the closest people to me who were in Manchester at that moment. I was lucky. There were the usual ‘I could have been there’ stories, but no one I knew directly was hurt. If we are all only five connections away from everyone else on the planet, then many people were not so lucky that day. The death of twenty-two people, not including the bomber, will have affected hundreds directly, particularly in Manchester, and most agonizingly for those families who last saw their loved ones leaving to enjoy a concert with their friends. Cowardice is the defining feature of any attack that targets civilians, but the youthfulness and, perhaps, even gender of so many of the victims made the Manchester Arena Bombing feel all the more abhorrent.
It is natural to feel fury in the aftermath of an event like this. Yet in its loss, grief and commemoration, Manchester skirted the traps of resentment, recrimination and revenge that terrorist attacks are intended to lay. The city responded with love, music and diversity, to an ideology that is disgusted by these things. A year on the tone remains much the same. Yet although it feels right to commemorate this grand theft of life, such an extensive response and coverage may be helping the terrorists, as much as it provides catharsis for the bereaved. Terrorism has little currency in a vacuum. An effective terrorist attack, to quote Patrick Cockburn, “requires the complicity of governments”, but it also makes media and society accessories to the crime. Cockburn does not mean that governments are complicit by supporting malevolent actors, but that, as was the case following 9/11, the reaction plays into the hands of the perpetrators. The US Patriot Act dealt a far greater blow to American liberty than al-Qaida ever could have alone. Granting terrorists the attention they crave not only intensifies the consequences of a specific attack, but it also makes it a more appealing proposition for ‘copycats.’ Rolling Stones’ decision to put the face of the Boston Marathon bomber on their front cover is the most infamous example, but the relentless, often morbid ‘this is how it happened’ coverage is part of the problem.
By marking the anniversaries annually, and emphasizing the nation-wide trauma that such attacks can induce, we may be making them more likely.
While the one-year anniversary of the Manchester bombing should, of course, be commemorated, there is an argument that the attendance of the Prime Minister, Royal Family and the renewed media coverage might legitimize the use of deadly force against civilians as a political tool, in the eyes of individuals at risk of radicalization.
By marking the anniversaries annually, and emphasizing the nation-wide trauma that such attacks can induce, we may be making them more likely. Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins has observed that when attacks occur in Beirut or Bagdad, the cities return to apparent normality within days. Yet the unfortunate but obvious reason for this is that terrorism happens more often in these places than in Britain. It feels inconceivable that twenty-two people could be murdered in a British city for any reason, and that the national dialogue would continue uninterrupted. Is this not a hallmark of our relative security and humanity? To accept such attacks as we do freak accidents and motorway pile-ups would be to ignore the ideological underpinning behind terrorism – and thus feel like a form of surrender. Perhaps then, the debate should be over how we commemorate these atrocities.
the city showed that its diversity was, in fact, a strength, not a weakness to be exploited.
In my estimation, Manchester’s response epitomized what we should strive for. Despite the bomber being a second-generation immigrant and a Muslim, the city showed that its diversity was, in fact, a strength, not a weakness to be exploited. The tone was overwhelmingly not one of vengeance or false equivocation, but neither was it insipid and weak. The One Love Concert, organized by Ariana Grande, was an affront to an ideology that seeks to silence music and women, and the diversity of the acts that performed was a rebuttal to intolerance.
Mancunians made the effort to continue city life, despite the inescapable shock, sadness and anger. Students turned off their phones, went to their exams, and walked past armed police on the way in. How we as a society respond to terrorism is not one of the great questions of our time, but it is one of the hardest to get right. Manchester’s response should serve as an inspiration, but to annually relitigate the events of 22 May 2017 might not make us safer. Too much attention will intensify the problem, but to ignore it is simply not an option. If it was an option, this article would not have been written.bookmark me