I come from Manchester. I went to school there, I attended countless gigs in the city. I still have friends and family in the city. I also have a teenage daughter, who is just starting to go to gigs herself. So, of all the terror attacks of recent years, the suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester this week, a concert filled largely with teenage fans, feels personally particularly shocking.
Every terror attack is barbarous. To set out deliberately to inflict mass murder upon a group of children is, however, truly unconscionable. The Islamic State statement claiming responsibility for the attack boasted of ‘placing explosive devices in the midst of the gathering of Crusaders’. It would seem surreally absurd were it not so painfully raw.
Terror groups in the past, such as the IRA, which itself bombed Manchester’s main shopping centre in 1996, used violence as a means to a political end. Not so contemporary jihadists. For today’s Islamists, terror is an end in itself, the sole aim of which is to inflict pain and instill fear. What else was the Manchester attack?
In Muslim-majority countries, such savagery has become almost part of the fabric of life. In Pakistan and Syria, in Libya and Iraq, Islamists routinely attack schools and playgrounds, markets and mosques. Now, increasingly, we in the West face such horrors, too.
I have written before in these pages about the increasingly blurred lines between ideological violence and sociopathic rage. In the past, the distinction between the two was relatively clear. No longer. There seems today to be almost a continuum between ideological violence, disjointed fury and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness.
Earlier this month, a 20-year-old Briton called Damon Smith was found guilty of planting a homemade bomb filled with ball bearings on a London Underground train. Police discovered in his flat shredded pages of an article titled ‘Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom’ from Inspire, a magazine published by an al-Qaida affiliate. On his iPad was a shopping list for ‘pressure cooker bomb materials’. On his computer were photos of Alan Henning, the aid worker beheaded by Islamic State, as well photos of the ringleaders of the 2015 Paris attacks.
And yet there was nothing to connect Smith to any extremist network. He was relatively ignorant of Islam, had never been to a mosque, and did not think of himself as Muslim. He suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, and other behavioural issues.
Damon Smith was not a jihadi in any conventional sense of the word. And yet, he inhabited what we might call a ‘jihadi state of mind’; a mixture of social disengagement, moral dissolution, attention-seeking narcissism, unleavened misanthropy and nihilistic rage that drives some to see violence and terror as a form of revolt. Bombs were ‘something to do when he was bored’, Smith told a psychiatrist.
It is a state of mind that finds its most vicious, barbaric form in Islamist terror. But it is not only in Islamist terror that it finds expression. The white nationalist Dylann Roof shot dead nine African American worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. According to the psychiatric evaluation report ordered by the court, and recently made public, ‘the best way he has found to explain his thinking is the analogy of his being a Jihadist’. Roof also thought ‘his situation is like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people. He said the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret, because he would have successfully done what he tried to do.’ We may not think of Roof as a ‘jihadi’. But, in a certain sense, he thought of himself as one.
Our challenge is not just to confront jihadism in the narrow sense of disrupting networks, and preventing individual acts of terror, huge though that task is. It is also to tackle in a broader fashion the ‘jihadi state of mind’. There are no quick off-the-shelf solutions to this. The roots of the jihadi state of mind are deep and complex. The social and moral boundaries that act as firewalls against such behaviour have weakened. Western societies have become socially atomised. The influence of institutions that once helped socialise individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others, from the church to trade unions, has declined. So has that of progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form. All this has spawned a proliferation of angry, unbalanced individuals, detached from wider society and its norms, denied political outlets for their disaffections and who find in Islamism or white nationalism the balm for their demons and the justification for their actions.
If we need to rethink our longer-term approach to the jihadi state of mind, we need to rethink, too, our immediate responses to acts of terror. Terrorism is a form of theatre. This is particularly true of contemporary Islamist terror, the aim of which is not a specific political goal, but merely the sowing of fear and terror. What matters is the spectacle, and nothing else. Hence the more gruesome and depraved the spectacle, the more it achieves its aim.
There is inevitably a certain complicity between terrorism and its audience. Terrorism is about capturing public attention and manipulating our emotions. Murder a teenager on a Manchester street and it makes the local press. Slaughter two dozen at a teenage concert in the name of Allah and it becomes worldwide news, indelibly embedded in our minds. Bomb a military base or a government office, and it has limited impact. Attack a school or playground and it strikes at the heart of every single person in that society, and seems to shred the very idea of safety and innocence.
This is why terrorism is particularly a problem in democratic societies with relatively free press. In China or Saudi Arabia, countries in which authoritarian regimes control the media, terrorism has less impact, because as a spectacle it is control by the state. That is far less possible in Britain or America or Sweden. Democratic governments often try to control reporting of terror, but they only have limited success, especially in these days of globalized social media.
It is right that the media should be free to report as terror attacks as they see fit. But this places upon it a greater burden of responsibility to think about how it should report terrorism. Wall-to-wall coverage of attacks such as in Manchester may seem inevitable, but it also plays into the hands of terrorists. When TV stations run an endless loops of videos of panicked people, anguished parents, and distraught children, they create the very spectacle that terrorists want. For all his faults, and for all his narrow-minded, reactionary tirades, this is one thing that Donald Trump understands. ‘Evil losers’, he called the terrorists this week, adding ‘I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term’.
Inevitably the most warming response, as it generally is in tragic circumstances, came from local people in Manchester. Ordinary people performing very human deeds that wove into a tapestry of solidarity. The medics that rushed the scene. The bystanders that helped the injured. The taxi drivers that came from other cities to ferry people for free. The café owner who brought food and drink. The residents who opened their homes to anyone who needed shelter.
And the day after the atrocity tens of thousands took to centre of Manchester for a vigil in solidarity. ‘Love is always stronger than hate’, was the message.
And yet. After every terrorist outrage are acts of solidarity and candle-lit vigils. There is a danger that they become solidified into rituals rather than grow into real solidarity. Solidarity needs more than simply an outpouring of love in grief. It needs the mechanisms that can transform those emotions into the fuel for social change.
There is inevitably anger, as well as love and grief. That is no bad thing. I feel angry too. But, as we see with terrorism itself, anger unchanneled, anger not given shape by mechanisms for forward-looking social change, can all too easily become blindly sectarian and dangerously misanthropic. The challenge we face is to rebuild organizations of civil society and movements for social change that can not only puncture the jihadi state of mind, but also channel the grief and love and anger about terrorism into social hope.