Like so many of us I have been trying for the past few days to gather my thoughts and reflections about the events in Manchester. As a political writer, the Jihadist onslaught against Western civil society over the past few years, drains the creative energy from me, replaced by anger and sorrow. I run out of new things to say about a phenomenon which is now increasingly commonplace, normalised even by some estimations. I run out of adjectives to describe the attacks and the terrorists responsible: horrifying, brutal, sadistic, evil. The English language has its limits.
That being said, something does seem to have shifted in this case. I feel a little queasy even suggesting that, as if our society didn’t get the memo a decade ago, or after one of the numerous attacks since. In just over a month, it will be twelve years to the day since the 7/7 attacks in London. Since then, the only respites we have enjoyed from the cancer of Jihadism have been granted by our security services, whose work in general has been highly praiseworthy, stopping attacks before they happen.
But still we fail. Our leaders fail us in their empty platitudes. We fail to assert the virtue of our civilisation and our corollary duty to prevail. We fail to have honest conversations about the root of the problem. We fail in our creeping normalisation of terror.
After Manchester, however, something new seems to be stirring. I have no doubt that this is because, as horrifying as any targeting of civilians is, this attack specifically targeted the young. This is a new tenor of wake-up call. Not only are we confronted with a visceral demonstration of how bad this can get, but by the shameful realisation that we are even able to comprehend ranking the severity of civilian murder at all – the idea that one terrorist attack can be “not as bad” as another. We have been stumbling into a new normal.
Although there have been plenty of minors killed in terrorist attacks before, this feels different. Rightly or wrongly, something about the specific targeting of children, children doing what children do: dancing and singing along to their favourite pop music, is shocking on a different level. One begins to wonder about the motivation for this particular venue, this particular event. Allegedly, this attack was “revenge” for British action in the Middle East, a so-called “cause” of Jihadist violence which Islamic State themselves have confirmed as secondary at best.
From Islamic State’s own magazine Dabiq in an article entitled “Why we Hate you and Why we Fight you”:
“What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”
We fail in our creeping normalisation of terror.
Western foreign policy blunders cannot be discounted as a useful recruiting mechanism, but nor can they ever provide either an adequate basis in isolation (without the motivation of an ideology or spiritual mission), or a justification for the deliberate targeting of innocents. Those who parrot the vacuous refrains of “nothing to do with Islam” and “Western imperialism” must be confronted with the question: So why an Ariana Grande concert? The choices made by this attacker are a direct repudiation of the excuses and qualifications made by apologists for Islamist hatred. The targeting of an “immodest” female performer reveals not an aggrieved political motivation but a twisted religious one. It adds a further question we would all rather not dwell on: what were his thoughts about the children he was about to murder? This fiend, who probably died with a smile on his face, fulfilling his great purpose out of “love for Islam”. If only there were a Hell for him to burn in.
A sustained gaze at this act of terror can lead us to several conclusions. One being the gut-punch realisation that we were beginning to accept this. It became fairly commonplace to hear fatuous arguments about how few people are killed in terrorist attacks compared to road accidents or heart disease. London mayor Sadiq Khan even suggested that we may have to get used to regular targeting of civilians en-masse as simply “part and parcel of living in a big city”. Keep calm and carry on. I am no fan of Mr Khan, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he made that statement in good faith to promote vigilance; however, so much rests on his proposition being roundly rejected. We may not be able to stop these attacks for good tomorrow or next week or next year, but we can never accept them as a normality; to “factor in” a certain quantity of lives lost annually, as a retailer accounts for stock spoilage. If we are to take anything from this nightmare it is that the mass murder of children makes this calculus impossible.
Secondly, a nightmarish event like this inflames the long-festering identity crisis of the British/European psyche. A combination of post-colonial guilt and the fatigue induced by our involvement in long grinding wars and internecine conflicts abroad have made us hesitant to adopt a confrontational tone. Notes of defiance are often met by critical assumptions that one is proposing some kind of bumbling sustained bombing campaign. We prefer instead to ponder on all the ways this could be our fault. We polish our haloes and inadvertently echo shallow political platitudes like “love conquers hate” and “pray for Manchester”. We share touching videos of mourners playing John Lennon’s Imagine in the street or change our profile pictures to images conveying solidarity – a click of a button relieving us of the harder task of mentally coming to grips with the onslaught that has been set against us.
On the other hand, we are angry, enraged even. But we fear what acting on that rage could mean. We are taught in our society that one should never act on feelings of anger and vengefulness as it diminishes our humanity. We wonder what that would look like. Anti-Muslim pogroms? More foreign wars?
I think not. Dishonesty, sanitisation and creeping normalisation are not the answer. The anger of which our people are taught to feel ashamed merely festers leading to more of what its very suppression was trying to avoid. A people who feel lied to, who do not feel protected or at the very least supported in their grief and rage tend to clumsily take matters into their own hands. Not only does refusing to speak honestly about the problems in modern Islam lead to all Muslims being painted with the same brush (an irony lost on most politically correct politicians), but anyone who assumes that naming the Jihadist enemy for what it is does should exclude or offend ordinary Muslims, is part of the problem. They contradict themselves by claiming that Jihadists do not represent Muslims and then insult the people they claim (condescendingly) to protect by allowing extremists to speak for them, by assigning them a separate set of moral standards from “the rest of us”. This civilizational defiance against our common enemy must necessarily include Western Muslims who are just as disgusted by the actions of the Islamic State.
So what happens next? It is my belief that the most important next step, if we are to prevail in this war, is not necessarily a shift in military strategy or policing (though there may be cause for that as well) but a cultural shift. We need to embrace this fight rather than shirk from it. The narrative of Jihadism has, from day one, been that the West is weak, corrupted by its separation from God, enfeebled by its empowerment of women and enfranchisement of homosexuals, fearful of death as no believer could be. Much rests on that proposition being comprehensively repudiated if it is not too late. We do not choose to be at war, given the choice, but when a war is inflicted upon us without our consent, it is preferable by far to face the enemy than to pretend we can dodge this fight, that maybe he will leave us alone next time.
Most importantly, we must accept the fact that destroying this enemy does not diminish us as a civilisation. You will be hard-pressed to find a more perfect reactionary repudiation of everything that makes life worth living in a free society and a vibrant open culture than the filth of Jihadism. Everything we value and are right to value as a civilisation is contradicted by the very existence of this cult of death. You need not take my word for it, they have been loudly shouting this at us for years – “we love death as you love life” and many of us refuse to take them seriously. Defeating this enemy is an affirmation of everything that makes our civilisation better than theirs, the very reasons they hate us.
“They (Jihadists) gave us no peace and we shouldn’t give them any. We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murderers and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure” – Christopher Hitchens