Like most people in Britain, I woke up last Tuesday to the news that there had been a terrorist attack in the northern English city of Manchester. It soon became apparent that this was the worst terrorist attack on British soil since the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground in 2005: 22 people were dead and many more injured or missing. The suicide bomber blew himself up at the end of a pop concert and the victims were almost all young people enjoying a night out with friends. The youngest was an eight-year-old girl.
The response on the ground was typical of the Blitz Spirit from the Second World War that so characterizes the British response to a major crisis. Local families offered practical help – cups of tea, a bed for the night for shell-shocked survivors in the aftermath of the attack. The heart-breaking statements from the headteachers of some of the victims’ schools and colleges promised support and solidarity as these close-knit communities rallied around bewildered, grief-stricken families. Parish priest Fr Simon Firth describes the hundreds who attended a Mass of remembrance on the Tuesday evening, whilst his parishioners struggle to deal with the enormity of what has happened. He said: “We have people still in hospital, children and grandchildren of parishioners who only just missed the bomb. A ten-year-old preparing for First Communion was in the Arena at the time of the explosion and is very traumatized.”
The terrorist attack comes at a painful time for the parish. Earlier in the month, serial killer Ian Brady died in a secure hospital. Aided and abetted by his lover Myra Hindley, Brady tortured and murdered children during the 1960s and buried their bodies on Saddleworth Moor, earning himself the nickname ‘the Moors Murderer.’ One of his young victims, John Kilbride, was a parishioner and Brady’s death has opened many wounds among the families of victims, the terrorist attack compounding the grief faced by an already traumatized community. However, Fr Firth insists: “Northern (English) resilience will out. We’re a defiant bunch.”
As the full horror of what had happened began to sink in, however, there was a palpable sense of confusion beneath the defiance. In all honesty, nobody knows how to react and no response feels adequate. The ‘business as usual’ mantra spoken by politicians may have sounded convincing coming out of the mouth of Winston Churchill, but there is no getting around the fact that life is never going to be ‘business as usual’ ever again. For the friends, families and witnesses of that terrible event, life can never be the same again. Their lives have been altered, violently and irrevocably.
On social media, grief and anger have emerged in almost equal measure, with the reaction in Catholic quarters being largely bellicose. Social media has turned every citizen into an expert and everyone seems to have a strategy for dealing with the problem. As one armchair critic wrote with sadly typical venom: “All we need is lots of tears, boo hoo hoo-ing, mutual ‘affirming’ and gallons of platitudes, ‘lerv’ and meaningless euphemisms. Yep. That’s bound to stop the next terrorist incident. Errr….on the other hand proper intelligence gathering, security operations, border controls and permission to call a spade a spade and a Jihadi a Jihadi, might just work a bit better. But I could be wrong. Hysteria might be better…”
The glaring difficulty is that none of the strategies being bandied about with such confidence can be easily implemented by ordinary citizens, and, for all the public campaigns to report suspicious behaviour, counterterrorism is conducted by experts. This is not a war where an entire population can be mobilised to ‘dig for victory’ or enlist, and the sense of helplessness caused by terrorism cannot be ignored.
Some of the tabloid coverage of the terrorist attack has been needlessly intrusive—was it entirely necessary to describe the little girl calling for her mother as she lay dying in the arms of a stranger, when her mother is in intensive care and still unaware that her daughter has died? For the most part, however, the grief being poured out on social media and at vigils and services around the country feels like a genuine cry of despair trying to find an outlet. There is a nagging sense that the means used in recent years to respond to terrorist attacks are tired and pointless. Are we really going to achieve anything by draping our Facebook profile pictures with the Union Jack or wearing black wristbands? But if not, how are we to show our solidarity with the victims in a way that does not appear self-indulgent or hackneyed?
For anyone in their mid-thirties or older, the raising of the terror threat in Britain to ‘critical’ brought back agonising memories of The Troubles. A journalist friend who grew up in Northern Ireland during the seventies commented: “That’s what I most remember about the Belfast of my childhood: roadblocks everywhere, soldiers on the streets, queues of people being searched before they could enter a public event. It’s no way to live your life.”
Growing up in an army town in England during the last days of the Troubles, I vividly remember the steady stream of news stories—a soldier shot dead, rioting, a bomb planted on a busy street killing children. I have a pair of earrings that I keep hidden away in my drawer, which belonged to a family friend who witnessed a terrorist attack while she was studying at Queen’s University, Belfast. She never recovered from the trauma and took her own life after years of mental illness. Her mother gave me a gift to remember her by but all these years later, I still can’t bring myself to take it out of the box. The Troubles wounded two generations and left even those living far from its epicentre with a constant, nagging sense of fear that simply had to be endured.
As my journalist friend said, it is no way to live your life and it is not the life I want for my children, but they are facing a terror far greater than anything their parents or grandparents remember. The Northern Ireland-related atrocities were horrific and we can sometimes forget that, but there were at least potential points of negotiation, there was the possibility (eventually realised) of getting the different factions around the table. Our children face a terror threat without any plausible solution. There are no points of negotiation with IS: they purport to want a caliphate, the wholesale destruction of everything we hold dear, the imposition of a way of life no nation in the world desires for its people. Hence the grief, the confusion and the anger. Once again, we have armed men patrolling the streets, a sight that ought to be unthinkable in modern Britain. We are all adapting to living with that nagging sense of fear again. My children have evacuation drills at school following the evacuation of a local primary school because of a bomb threat; my daughter’s friend recounted recently how they had had to practice diving under their desks and keeping very quiet whilst the teacher locked the door as part of an ‘intruder drill.’
Two days after the bomb attack, I took my eleven-year-old son to London to visit the Imperial War Museum because his class is learning about the Second World War this term. It was almost apocalyptic. It was the first time he had ever seen a gun, but it was not safely encased in glass in a museum as I had planned—it was a fully loaded automatic weapon in the hands of a policeman at the Surrey railway station near our home. When I visited the Imperial War Museum as a teenager, the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and the world wars—indeed, any wars—were ancient history. When we walked through the First World War exhibition today, my son was invited to try on a military uniform. Typically serious, he donned the khaki jacket and tin hat, then quickly asked why I was looking away…
This is not the world we wanted for our children, but in the wake of yet another European terrorist attack, everyone wants to protect the next generation but no one knows how.