Is it possible to make sense of terrorism? Should we even want to? Maybe making sense of terrorism falls into the same category as trying to understand the behaviour of paedophiles – the vast majority of us are so repulsed by what they do that we’d rather close the door on understanding, and we fear that trying to understand them somehow sanctions their behaviour.
Whenever there is a terrorist attack society reacts with an initial outcry, an outpouring of grief and often a show of solidarity; in recent attacks, and especially since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, this manifests itself as the sharing of hashtags on social media, like #JeSuisCharlie or #PrayForParis. Following this, there is usually a collective wringing of hands throughout society, accompanied by cries of “how did this happen?”, “could we have seen this coming?”. Amongst these responses, a creeping fear often begins to take root.
When I woke up this morning to news of the attack in Manchester and learned that the concert had been attended by an audience of predominantly girls and young women, I felt sad to the very core of my being. Throughout the day, I followed updates about the attack and I saw pictures of the missing, as their families tried to trace their loved ones. There was one picture that stood out, that of Saffie Rose Roussos aged eight who was missing. I thought back to the eight-year-old me and how I would have felt to be caught in the middle of such an atrocity. I was carefree and innocent, just like her, and I would have been petrified. I felt something break inside me when, later in the day, Saffie was announced to be one of the deceased. How could the murder of an eight-year-old ever make any sense? I didn’t even know about terrorism when I was eight – the 9/11 attack happened when I was nine and I was too young to know about IRA terrorist activity.
There was another story that drove home to me the innocence of the victims. A mother spoke about being reunited with her 14-year-old daughter after the attack. They, luckily, were only separated for a short time. The mother reported that she drove her daughter home and, when they arrived, all the daughter wanted to do was watch The Sound of Music with her family. The mother spoke to the media as the daughter was asleep and she was fretting over what to tell her when she woke up and saw the news. I will always remember this mother’s tale whenever I watch The Sound of Music in the future.
Nowhere is safe now. That is the general reaction to each new attack that happens. They seem to be increasingly random and targeting a variety of different events: Christmas markets, a bridge filled with tourists, music venues, cafes, public transport, sporting events. The problem with this is that we are constantly on our guard against possible terrorist activity, whether that means deliberately sitting apart from people who possess certain physical characteristics, or changing habits to try and minimise the perceived risk of being caught up in an attack, like refusing to travel on the Underground. The greatest sadness is that we all know that it’s not a question of if there’s another attack, it’s a question of when. I was surprised that a former terrorism police chief today used Radio 4 to broadcast that he felt that this attack would be just the start of a chain of attacks – is it healthy to breed such panic? When I heard this I immediately panicked about my plans to go to London on Saturday- will I be safe? Is it wise to go to the Natural History Museum? It’s a Bank Holiday weekend, might that be a target? These thoughts rattled through my head, as unstoppable as a freight train, and I had to force myself to snap out of it and to remind myself that this is the desired outcome of terrorism – fear and uncertainty.
We have come a long way from the 7/7 London Bombings when there was a backlash against the Muslim community; however, it troubles me that our immediate reaction after terrorist attacks (and I’m as guilty of this as the next person) is to assume that the perpetrator was a Muslim extremist. But maybe it’s part of a slow shift in thinking – as a society we now understand that the Muslim extremists make up a tiny number of the vast Muslim population in this country so perhaps in five years’ time we will be able to receive news of a bomb or gun attack without assuming that a Muslim extremist was responsible. I believe that we must strive to love, educate and accept any members of society who may be at risk of indoctrination to the extremist ideology – if we turn our back on them then they will be lost to their cause.
Fire cannot be fought with fire and every time there is a terrorist attack, the outpouring of love and support amongst society always buoys me and I feel such pride that I am part of this society that can respond to such atrocious and senseless hate and violence with pure and boundless love. From taxi drivers giving free rides to stranded people in Manchester, to the blood banks brimming with people turning up to donate blood, from local businesses providing food and drinks to emergency workers, to people crowdfunding to support victims’ families; I am so immensely proud of all of this and it shows me that there is far more light than darkness in this world
I began writing this the day after the Westminster terrorist attack in March. The piece petered out before it was finished because it’s such a difficult subject to find words about. Sadly, in the wake of the bomb attack in Manchester, I felt compelled to take up my pen once more and finish this piece.