After the horror of the Manchester Arena attack, the 2017 general election campaign has been paused, on the agreement of all parties, as the UK tries to come to terms with a terrorist incident. And rightly so: this is not the time for party politics.
But politics as such cannot be stopped so easily, turned on or off on demand. There is, at times like these, a desperate need for political leadership, for a sense of direction to be given to a nation faced with uncertainty. This role falls to the sitting prime minister, first and foremost, and as such, Theresa May took to the steps of Downing Street to address the nation directly.
Credit where it is due: this is no easy task. After a gruelling couple of days in the election campaign, where the pressure must be immense, May suddenly had to switch to non-partisan stateswoman, and genuinely elevate the national interest above party interest.
In her statement, May largely did this. She told us that in the all-too-lengthy cannon of terrorist atrocities, this was particularly heinous, standing out from the rest “for its appalling, sickening cowardice, deliberately targeting innocent, defenceless children and young people”. She told us that we would in the coming days “struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but as an opportunity for carnage”.
Further, although always conceding the unimaginable pain involved, she said the images we should hold in our minds are not those of the destruction wrought by this hideous act, but rather, images of “the ordinary men and women who put concerns about their own safety to one side and rushed to help, of the men and women of the emergency services who worked tirelessly to bring comfort, to help and to save lives”. This, the prime minister said, was “the spirit of Manchester and the spirit of Britain”. It was evidence of shared values and a way of life that “will always prevail”.
In tone and scope, this is exactly the kind of speech the PM had to make at this painful time. Difficult questions, however, will eventually have to be asked – as they always are. These will be about security around large public events, and about counter-terrorism strategies generally. But right now is not the time for these.
The difficult questions
However, right now is the time for one other, overarching question. This question is entirely non-partisan: it’s a question not just for this prime minister, but for all the previous prime ministers who have had to respond to such atrocious acts of terrors, and all of the prime ministers to come who, sadly, will no doubt have to respond to events like this in the future: we have to ask in a way we have never asked before – why does this keep happening?
It is not enough to explain this away as a “warped and twisted mind”. That’s true beyond doubt: it’s warped and twisted, and we can never understand, excuse or condone it – or even explain it away as a product of wider global problems. This is not the fault of foreign policy decisions or geopolitical power plays. It is the product of hate and anti-humanism.
But still, if we are to leave our examination of it there, our only response is to hate back. And this will lead us nowhere. We must, as painful as it may prove to be, examine why that hate emerges in such frothing and forceful ways.
If the motive for this attack does indeed turn out to be tied to Islamic State, that will indeed include looking at the actions of nation states in the regions that produce this ideology. But so too will it involve looking at the role of religious indoctrination in the very tiny part of the Muslim faith from where these attackers come from. We must also look at the role of marginalisation, economic, political and social, in the make-up of these attackers.
If Donald Trump has groped towards a kind of truth in his usual, idiosyncratic response – and he very well may have done just that – with the claim that these people are first and foremost society’s “losers”, then we must examine what it is exactly that makes them so.
Again, none of this is to explain away their appalling acts of depravity. It is directed only at trying to identify where this is coming from, with the sole aim of stopping attacks like this from ever happening again.
I finish here, if I may, on a personal note. Manchester is my home city, the place I was born and raised, and there is much being written today about the spirit of Manchester to come together at a time like this. To the outsider, a lot of this may seem overblown. But remember this: the last time a terrorist bomb exploded in the heart of the city, destroying large swathes of the city centre, the response which I and everyone who lived there witnessed and contributed to by carrying on as before, but with more gusto, was a 15-year recovery and regeneration programme like none other in the UK. The examples of help and cooperation offered by the people of Manchester on social media overnight indicates that a similar response is already underway.