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Manchester bombing: There are no words – but there should be

PA images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Governments and societies are going to have to find the right actions and the right attitudes to stop jihadists from succeeding

‘I don’t have words’. So said Ariana Grande as she and her young fans were dragged into the awfulness of the adult world in the time it took for suicide bomber Salman Adebi to detonate his device. And she was right. No words.

Yet we live in a world more wordy than ever. There must be words. Political leaders must find them to lead, to calm, to reassure, to articulate the feelings of people. And at a moment like this, in this age, they are expected to communicate everywhere they go and explain whatever it is they are doing, thinking, feeling. Religious leaders must find words to bring comfort and meaning. Police and security forces must find them to bring the public into their world and get help not just with investigations of the past but prevent attacks in the future.

The Queen must find them, even if just a few words of sympathy, and even if they sound so much like words she has expressed in such statements many times before. Million upon million of people less known than her feel the need to find them too, as the world takes to its phones and tablets to express its sympathy, anger, fear or, in the case of some, to indulge in hideous exploitation or celebration.

As for the media, heaven knows how many billions of words around the planet have already been written, spoken, broadcast, blogged, tweeted. I was in France when the bomber struck, in Ireland the following day. In those two countries, as virtually everywhere in the developed world, one place dominated discussion, across television, radio and the press, and in the conversations of people. Manchester. In the eyes of the world it had in many ways passed Birmingham as England’s second city already. Now another sad chapter has been written into its global history, cementing its place as one of the best known, best liked cities in the world.

‘I don’t have words’. The American singer’s tweet reminded me of something that John Major said – ‘There are no words’ – in the wake of the Dunblane massacre in the spring of 1996, which in terms of the shock and revulsion aroused is perhaps the nearest to what happened in Manchester, where similarly children and the young were the targets. The Prime Minister was at the school where the killings of 16 children and a teacher had taken place a day earlier. He was with then Opposition Leader Tony Blair, a deliberate show of unity at a time of national shock and mourning, but he was speaking, before they faced the media together, to nobody in particular. ‘There are no words’. Like Ariana Grande today – she was just three back then, younger even than the children killed – he was right, that there are no words adequately to express all that is involved in such an attack. But words there must be. He had to find them. It was part of his job. And he did find them.

As the pictures of the Scottish primary school children whose lives were ended filled our papers and television screens and haunted our minds, much as the victims of the Manchester bombing are doing now, we wonder how life can ever get back to normal. For the families of victims, it doesn’t. They find ways of coping, perhaps, but let nobody imagine life is ever the same again. How can it be? The sense of loss is as unimaginable as the horror was, until that horror happened.

If I dig a bit into the recesses of my memory I can recall the name of the Dunblane killer, Thomas Hamilton. I can remember the amazing head teacher Ron Taylor, who made a real impression on me. I can remember the deadened, sleep-deprived, tear-drenched, hollowed out eyes of the parents and I can remember fighting back tears at least twice as we toured the school, at the sight of uncollected bags hanging from pegs, and blood stains on the gymnasium floor. But for most of us, inevitably as we carry on with our lives, the names and faces of the children whose lives were ended there have faded into the past.

It can never be any real consolation to the families that the massacre led to a change in the gun laws, or that Andy Murray, at the time a pupil at the school, later put Dunblane on the map for reasons other than a mass murder of children.

But those changes in the law, the political and emotional unity the massacre inspired, the many acts of kindness and support around the world that followed, Murray’s survival and success too, are all we have to hold to, to give any sense or meaning to the kind of horror that Dunblane came to represent. Getting good from bad is a very human desire. It is also a very powerful political instinct, and is often best harnessed in times of difficulty and grief.

In that context I think of the IRA’s bombing of Omagh in the summer of 1998, which killed 29 people and injured hundreds more. That death toll was higher than for any single incident during the Troubles. When it happened our immediate instinct was that it was a huge, possibly even fatal, setback to the peace process. However, because of the way people reacted, not least Sinn Fein with their unequivocal condemnation, Unionist leaders taking that at face value, also Bill Clinton heading over with Tony Blair to find the right words at the right time, it became a turning point that took the peace process forward when it might have stalled. Again, perhaps scant consolation for relatives who lost loved ones, whose eyes will look out from photos on mantelpieces, pianos and sideboards forever. But evidence again that good can and does come from bad.

It is hard, right now, to see what that might be so far as the Manchester Arena attack is concerned. But out of the power of the emotional and political reaction we have seen, all around the world, the chances are that it will. Already, I think we are seeing a deeper understanding of the threat we face, and a fairly stoic acceptance of what that may mean.

When terror hit the French election campaign with the murder of a Parisian police officer, which similarly led to a temporary suspension of campaigning, Emmanuel Macron drew criticism from his opponents for saying ‘this threat, this imponderable problem, is part of our daily lives for the years to come’. National Front leader Marine Le Pen used it to attack him for being ‘soft on Islamic terrorism’ when in fact he was doing the thing people often say they want from politicians – telling the truth about difficult challenges and choices.

This is a generational struggle affecting the entire world, and just as the causes are complex and varied, so will be the responses governments, security services and public have to make. Macron seems to have been rewarded rather than punished for saying it like it is.

There has to be more trust in the public discourse about the decisions those whose job it is to protect us are taking. Inevitably there were calls from the far right, including attention seekers like Katie Hopkins, urging all manner of disproportionate reaction after the Manchester bombing. They are a minority. But more numerous perhaps are those who object to powers which may intrude on privacy and basic freedoms, yet then demand to know why the intelligence services failed to thwart any and every attack. It places the security services in a near impossible position.

Perhaps out of this can come a more mature debate about the balance between liberalism and security, given the context has changed so much. Because of our history with the IRA, we are used as a country to terrorism. But there were limits to what IRA terrorists could and would do. There were, to some degree, rules of engagement. The jihadist movement sees no limit, no rules, no basis on which to contemplate settlement other than on their unmeetable terms. There are no words able fully to capture the scale of the horror they wish to inflict. But governments and societies are going to have to find the right actions and the right attitudes to stop them from succeeding, and the right words to explain and shape those actions and attitudes. It could be that the reaction to Manchester, home and abroad, was an important step down that road.

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