Giving ordinary places symbolic value is what terrorists want.
- By James PalmerJames Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy, which he joined in the winter of 2016. He was born in Manchester, U.K., and educated at Cambridge, before moving to Korea in 2002 and then China in 2003. He won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 2003, for his work on South Korea. He has written two books — The Bloody White Baron and Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes — and is working on a third.
Within hours of the horrific attack in Manchester, England, tributes to the city were pouring onto the page. It is a “city possessed of a rare vigor,” pronounced Howard Jacobson in the New York Times, “risen phoenix-like from the ashes” of the 1996 Irish Republican Army bombing. “Yesterday, Manchester was one of the greatest cities on earth, and it remains so today,” Owen Jones announced in the Guardian. “[L]et’s be mindful that whatever twisted motive was used to rationalise slaughtering laughing teenagers and children, Manchester will always overcome.” “If it was even possible, the spirit of the people of Manchester will grow even stronger this evening,” James Corden blubbered on his talk show.
Disaster hasn’t come with this much treacle since the Boston Molasses Flood. I’m a Mancunian, born in Withington and raised in Rusholme. I can tell you about Cottonopolis and Peterloo. I love my city, and I’m angry that people were hurt there. Yet this wave of claims about Manchester’s uniqueness is not only mistaken; it feeds a predictable and dangerous sentimentality that has become a mistaken norm in response to terrorist attacks in the West.
There’s nothing wrong with Manchester and a lot to love if you’re from there. Personally, I thought “mither,” “strop,” and “cadge” were perfectly cromulent English words until I was about 25, and I still harbor a rich variety of prejudices about all of Manchester’s neighbors and the entire south of England. I go back twice a year, though I can already predict my mam disputing that frequency. But it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not the great beating heart of an industrial wave imitated across the globe that it once was: It’s a pleasant, wet city with a good university that’s a nice place to raise kids and has some bleak neighborhoods.
It has produced some decent bands and a few great ones. But that’s no different from any large city. The people there are the usual mixture of saints and knobheads. I had brilliant teachers and good friends, but I was also beaten up a dozen or so times on the way to school, our house was burgled twice, and the Asian shops in Rusholme still had massive iron shutters to stop racists smashing the windows at night. It’s not a particularly amazing city or a huge symbolic target; it’s just an ordinary city that was probably chosen for small, ordinary, horrible reasons.
Of course Mancunians opened their homes and brought out free sandwiches and hurried into emergency rooms to save lives, and God bless every one of them. But they did that because they’re people, not because they were Mancunians. The vast majority of the time, disaster brings out the best in people, wherever and whomever they are. They’d have done the same in Sheffield, and we’d all be talking about the stoic hospitality of Yorkshire folk.
When something terrible happens, we instinctively move to find a connection with it: I was there three months ago, my parents are from there, my best friend moved there. There are ways in which this is an understandable, even noble instinct, one that can help us be a little better to each other or let us express our love for each other. The rational odds of any of my friends in Manchester being among the victims of the attack were about 0.02 percent, but I still asked them to check in on Facebook.
But these grandiose claims about Manchester and our solidarity with it are dangerous cant. They trick us into thinking we have skin in the game. Terrorism in the West, sporadic and horrible as it is, is designed to hit our heartstrings, to pull us into grand narratives and make us feel that, yes, we could be next. We invoke epic struggles instead of treating terrorists as the sad, petty little men they are and so grant them the very status they want as soldiers in a grand struggle. The language of solidarity inevitably feeds into the images of wartime; as soon as London was hit in 2005, the language of the Blitz was everywhere. But ordinary people in the West are not at war, however much lunatics and criminals want us to be. Fewer than 200 people a year are killed by terrorism in the West. (In contrast, more than 50,000 Americans alone died of drug overdoses last year, more than 40,000 in auto accidents, and more than 1,000 from falling down the stairs.)
There are places and people that are targeted by terrorists for clearly ideological reasons, like the World Trade Center or Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps, then, there’s some value in “standing with them,” as people did in the name of free speech after the Paris attacks, as hypocritical and self-serving as it sometimes was. The debate over whether we were “Je suis Charlie” or not at least raised questions that needed to be discussed. But there’s no symbolic value in Manchester. That the attack targeted a concert full of happy young women and gay men is far more significant, if we have to find reason in it, than the city it happened in.
There’s no reason that anyone in America or Europe should care about this attack any more than they should care about the other thousands of horrible, pointless early deaths that took place in Manchester this year (like any other city), whether by fire, knife, car, or cancer — all of which are far more likely to affect their lives than terrorism. Yet these deaths are already set to be nightmare fuel for political paranoias. In the U.K., we’ve already had a Daily Mail columnist call for a “final solution.” The U.S. right-wing response will likely be as grotesque and ignorant as usual.
Predictably, too, we only bring out these elegies when the West is attacked. There are very few tearful invocations of the spirit of Mumbai, Karachi, or Nairobi, all of which are, I’ve no doubt, wonderful and vibrant cities full of kind and loving people. But there we focus on the defeats, on the damage done, when we write about it at all, not on the resistance and resilience. When there is solidarity, it’s a cynical sheen; even now, the usual crowd of autocrats are assuring us that the people of their countries stand shoulder to shoulder with Manchester. That cover of sympathy will be hung over their own persecution of dissidents, radicals, or independence fighters as “terrorists.”
It’s also a syndrome of a society and a media that have come to feed dangerously off tragedy. The rush for articles about the wonderful spirit of Manchester is in part a desperation to fill pages before we know facts, and it’ll only get worse. “I shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth,” wrote poet Dylan Thomas of a child incinerated in the Blitz. “Nor blaspheme down the stations of her breath / With any further / Elegy of innocence and youth.”
But that’s what will happen with the children killed in Manchester over the next few days and weeks. There’s something obscene about our lust for sentimental suffering, in which the awful, meaningless deaths of children will become the fodder of tear-jerking tabloid pages. The cheap emotion of it distracts us from the hard work of real compassion, the daily grind of kindness.
Manchester is a good, ordinary city where something awful has happened. It’s full of decent people who will cope with shock, horror, and loss in the same ways people do every day, everywhere. It doesn’t need to be anything more.
Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images