The first victim named was from Lancashire, the second an eight-year old girl. Two girls from the isle of Barra in the Western Isles are among those still unaccounted for. A reminder, if it were needed, that though this was an attack in Manchester, the chains of personal connections to the horror stretch all across Britain. You cannot read the stories of those killed or missing without choking, without tears, without appreciating that even by the standards of contemporary terrorism there was something especially vile about this latest atrocity.
It is natural to feel helpless as well as angry, not least because the imaginative gulf between the norms of civilised society and the mind capable of contemplating, and then committing, this kind of atrocity yawns so wide it’s all but unbridgeable. How do you respond to something you cannot understand? You cannot empathise, even as a hypothetical exercise, with minds that think a concert hall full of teenage girls is a necessary target.
There is no political agenda advanced, in however perverted or despicable a fashion, by this barbarism. There is no change of government policy, or shift in priorities, that would minimise the risk of this happening again. The experiences of France, Belgium, and Germany should show even people seeking the fig-leaf of an easy answer that foreign policy is a wholly inadequate explanation for these murderous acts. It’s a sickness of the mind, not blowback.
In the aftermath of this, nuance is easily lost but no less important than ever. To observe that an act of terrorism was religiously-motivated does not mean responsibility for it is shared by all the perpetrator’s co-religionists. And yet it remains reasonable to ask what motivated the bomber, who inspired him, whose writings or teachings or words gave him the serenity and security of ‘righteousness’ and ask what can be done to counter this. We ask because we need to know and because knowing can aid the process of doing something, however imperfectly, about it.
That might amount to little more than more of the same and it is easy, in the heartbroken pain of the moment, to understand why that must seem a wholly inadequate, even insulting, response to murder on this scale. And yet the alternatives are no better and often worse. An over-reaction, while satisfying a sense of justified outrage, does little to make such events less likely in the future. And any reaction which fails to meet that test – the test of whether it makes these attacks more or less likely – is likely to prove unwise.
The bromides about a community pulling together, about insisting that we have more in common than whatever divides us, that we – that Manchester – will meet horror with a certain dogged fortitude, have become the stuff of cliche. But cliches rest on truths and a hackneyed truth is no less true for being so familiar it risks seeming glib. The official responses to last night’s events, from the Prime Minister down, have said all the right things in all the right, grimly familiar, ways.
We know, at some fundamental level, that we have been lucky for most of this century. Fortunate that such incidents, terrifying as they are, have been rarer than might have been expected. That owes much to the work of the security services and the police, for whose efforts today we give thanks once more. That work continues and arrests on terrorism charges are now so routine they rarely lead the news bulletins.
The price of vigilance is also paid in realism. We appreciate that not everything can be done everywhere. Sometimes, appallingly, the bomber or the knifeman or the shooter will get through. An open society is also a vulnerable society but we can no more close off our public spaces than we can imagine dramatically reordering our way of life to take account of what are, hard as it is to remember today, mercifully rare events. There are things we could do that we cannot do. This is a hard truth too.
None of that reduces the pity and horror we feel today and nor does it require us to skirt around the issue of responsibility for this barbarism. It only asks us to think on what we prize, on the values – for they are real – and the virtues, which are also real, of an open society in which peoples of dramatically different backgrounds, of all faiths and none, all have a place.
Clickbait hackery will call for internment or mass surveillance or some other dramatic gesture that satisfies the craving to ‘just do something, damnit’, but that would do little to improve security or that, even if it did, would require us to sacrifice the very principles that, in our grander moments, we think define our society, our way of life. Here, as everywhere, there are trade-offs and sometimes these are deeply, necessarily, uncomfortable.
Instinctively, I think, most people understand this. They appreciate that realism is not the same as fatalism and far less is it any kind of capitulation. Even amidst heartbreak, decency finds a way. We saw that, in the immediacy of the moment, in the thousands of individual acts of instinctive kindness in Manchester last night and this morning. Taken singly these were only small; together they became something mighty.
That’s not enough but neither is it nothing. We grieve and we mourn and we do not forget. But we do go on. This is Manchester. This is Britain.