I have been to the Manchester Arena. The internet tells me it was 8 August 1996, and I was there to see one of the last dates on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour. In those day, it was called the NYNEX Arena, in deference to a now-defunct sponsor. The occasion came up in conversation only a few days ago, but I couldn’t have dreamed that the venue would impinge so violently on my consciousness as it did last night and this morning.
In a sense, we should not be surprised by the vicious bomb attack on an audience so heavily comprising young children. The police and the security services have been warning us for a long time that such an attack on a mass event was likely, and, if the events across continental Europe had not reminded us of the danger, then Khalid Masood’s murderous rampage in Westminster in March should have done. I worked in the House of Commons for 11 years, and in all that time I don’t think the threat level ever dropped below “severe” (at one point, it was rather opaquely described as “black special”).
So shock, but not surprise, should be the order of the day. Manchester, of course, is no stranger to terrorist outrages; it was bombed by the IRA in 1973, 1975 and 1992, and then again, famously, in June 1996, when a 3,300 lb truck bomb was detonated on Corporation Street. They were still clearing up the mess when I went to the Arena a few weeks later. The 1996 bomb, however, caused no fatalities, while, at the time of writing, 22 people are confirmed dead from yesterday’s attack.
For all that, the enormity (in the true sense of the word) of the event does make you stop for a moment. In part, we are almost too well served by the security services. They have foiled so many terrorist plots since the London bombings of 2005, yet cannot fully publicise the fact, that we are lulled into a false sense of security, no matter how loudly and how often we are warned that it is not a matter of if, but when. And this will happen again, of that I have no doubt. More people will die, but many more will be saved by intelligence and policing work. The question is, therefore, how we respond.
I mean two things by that. On the one hand, there is the matter of how we respond on a practical, security level. Clearly, searches will be intensified, at least for a while, at large events like concerts and sporting fixtures. But much of that is now already routine. I was searched before gaining entry to the Oval for the only professional cricket match I have ever attended, and a more unlikely terrorist and unlikely venue you would be hard-pushed to find. For the time being, though, the searches will be more thorough, the queues a little longer, the waiting slightly more tedious. Very well. I am wary of national stereotypes, but some hold true, and we are, I would like to think, a stoical people (though from time to time we lose the plot – see the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, for a prime example), and in the main we will stand in line with good humour, occasional exasperation but understanding of why it is all necessary.
Then what? How will the security services respond to this latest attack? Much depends on the attacker (whose identity they think they already know, which is very fast work). Was he a lone wolf, or part of a cell? Did he build the bomb himself, or was he supplied with it from elsewhere? Is there a network to be discovered and rooted out? This article, by the BBC’s Dominic Casciani, is worth a read in this respect (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-40012208). It may be that politicians, once campaigning gets underway again after today’s suspension, will call for broader and more sweeping powers, particularly in the field of surveillance. It is, in one sense, lucky that Parliament is currently dissolved, so there can be no knee-jerk rush to legislate. We have a few weeks to consider our response.
Most interesting, though, at least for me, is how we respond intellectually and emotionally. The question presents itself obviously: how could a person, a human being like you and me, do such a thing? To detonate a bomb in the certain knowledge that young people, children in their early teens or younger, would be killed, maimed and injured? What sort of person must it be, to do that?
Certainly, it must be someone filled with hate, and with a contempt for (some) human life. If, as seems likely, it was an Islamic extremist, then he – or, conceivably she, but it is improbable – represents a movement, an ideology, with which we are locked in an existential struggle. I mentioned earlier the IRA. They were undoubtedly terrorists, evil and brutal killers, but they had a limited and comprehensible goal: to force Northern Ireland into a united state with the Republic. Islamic extremism is different. It wants to destroy the Western, democratic way of life, and establish a worldwide caliphate with all-embracing sharia law. Make no mistake about this. We would not be safe from these murderers if only we had not participated in military action in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria. We are an obstacle for them, “crusaders” who must be defeated in order to create their Islamist utopia. So they are materially different from the IRA, or from ETA, or even from those hard-left groups from the 1970s like the Red Brigade or the Baader-Meinhof Gang. They cannot be negotiated with nor accommodated in any way. There can be no dialogue with those who wish to obliterate your values.
Again, presuming that the killer was acting out of Islamist fury, there will inevitably be more debate about the extent to which he is representative of Islam, of the Qur’an, of mainstream Muslim opinion both in the UK and worldwide. One side will say that Islam is a religion of peace, that Islamism (or whatever term you choose to employ) is a perversion of the faith, and Muslims will queue up to condemn the bombing. The other side will say that Islamist terrorists use the tenets of Islam to justify their actions, that large sections of the Muslim community hold values which are inimical to our own, and that this struggle of West vs East must be treated as such. I am as yet undecided.