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Manchester’s Blue Monday and the Folly of Cowardice

As someone whose life revolves around consuming politics, consuming media, my reaction to the attack in Manchester - messy, and, for a while there, unbridled - felt disproportionate.

It’d been such a long time since I’d had crying-induced headaches. Since my face bore the blotchy pallor of someone who’s wept more than she’s breathed.

And I certainly can’t remember the last time I’ve had to embargo news in all its forms until coverage dies down.

Disproportionate at least until I entered analytic mode. Started cataloguing all the reasons why it felt so much more real and horrible and personal than all the other incidents of grief porn that I’ve been audience to.

It starts with place, of course. London, Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Quebec City. Berlin, Brussels and Beirut. I’ve been to many of the cities that have suffered recent brutal acts of political extremism.

But none of them are cities that provided the playlist that’s sound-tracked my adult life.

They’re not cities that have hosted the lion’s share of my excellent and also completely eviscerating memories.

They’re not cities that mean more to me viscerally than just some random metropolis that I attended a conference in, or went on holiday to.

I was in my early 20s the first time I went to Manchester. One of my first solo trips abroad. And on my first morning, I exited my hotel, saw a soiled wig in the gutter and somehow knew it would be a city that I’d forever be drawn to. A city that, with its grittiness, its bleakness, its tiny-bit-broken-ness, that it was as close as I’d get to a spiritual heartland.

Remove the city from the equation and it’s just the sheer horror of screaming, terrified little girls trapped like fish in a barrel. Of parents suffering the materialisation of their very worst nightmares. Of a city all about music having this layer of devastation now the mandatory side dish to any concert-going experience.

If I’m honest, I was already bereft before Theresa May made her statement. Calling the attack “cowardly”, as though that word means something. May, like all the grasping-for-better-words leaders before her, was seemingly compelled to crack open the Book of Terrorism Clichés.

Obama did it, calling the murder of Baton Rouge police officers as the “work of cowards”.

Justin Trudeau did it, calling the Quebec City mosque assault as a “cowardly attack”.

Boris Johnson seemingly couldn’t help himself, dubbing the terrorism in Westminster as “cowardly”.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

And sure, I could have written 1000 words on Donald Trump using an even more ridiculous word and calling the terrorists “losers”. Except criticising Trump would imply that I consider him capable of more than a two-syllable primary school slur.

“Coward” stings worse than “loser” primarily because, rather than just being a barb from a buffoon, it keeps getting said with gravitas, with solemnity. As though its meaning is clear, compelling.

According to Merriam-Webster: a coward is “one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity”.

Cowardly is not the right word for what happened in Manchester. Nor Baton Rouge. Nor Quebec City. Nor Westminster.

And yet, of all the zillion words at our disposal, why do politicians keep returning to it?

Cliché and a dearth of creativity are two explanations. Others of course, exist.

“Coward” helps to condemn the perpetrator by using an epithet widely understood as contemptible, particularly so in battle. It helps to emasculate the perpetrator and hint to gender even though we’re never really going to talk about it. “Coward” also serves as a rallying cry: that the rest of us aren’t cowards. That those of us whose life was spared need not buckle or show disgraceful fear. To, God forbid, not be timid nor curl up in a ball and bloody bay.

I’d be very keen for Obama or May or Johnson or Trudeau to explain to me what exactly is cowardly about strapping on an explosive device and walking into a crowd. I’ll swallow, without compunction, all the other synonyms - bastardly, dastardly, evil, heinous, cruel, inhuman - but try as I might no part of me believes there’s cowardice involved in ending one’s life for a (albeit rephrensible) political ideology.

This isn’t a semantics argument. It’s not semantics when it’s the default word of every political leader wanting to condemn terrorism. It’s not semantics when, in speeches and statements designed to both calm and castigate, a word used inaccurately is deployed in lieu of something better. Something with precision and punch and, at the very least, a suitable definition.

I’m not so naive as to think that anything said by a political leader in the wake of barbarism will have terrorists reconsidering their life choices. I do however, think that routinely missed are opportunities for leaders to be more nuanced. To offer up more than trope. To dare acknowledge that terrorism is unquestionably not a matter of terrorists just needing to “grow a pair”. That them not being cowards won’t fix any of this.

We need to talk about gender. About masculinity. About idle hands. We need to talk about hopelessness and lack of opportunity and the blinding attraction to extremism today.

Constant use of the word coward is on par with the Trumpian “loser” insult. It’s childish, it’s meaningless and it flaunts a complete disconnect from the meaning that suicide bombings have within extremist circles. It also, sadly, overlooks that whether it was a “coward” or a bloke chockful of brawn and bravado who ended so many lives on Monday night, the results are still exactly the same and every bit as shattering.

New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983).

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