Along with the shock, the disbelief and the helpless, inadequate sympathy with those hurt, desperately worried, traumatised and so savagely bereaved by the bombing of Manchester Arena comes the familiar need for explanations. Where does the desire to inflict such suffering come from? What do those responsible imagine they are ultimately going to achieve?
At this stage in the atrocity’s bleak and fearful aftermath, few specific details have emerged about the Manchester attack, which has so far left 22 people dead, some of them children, and a further 59 injured. As I write, the lone, male suicide bomber who caused the explosion has not been named*. Although another man has been arrested in connection with what happened, it has yet to be confirmed that the attacker had accomplices. What may have motivated him is not public knowledge at this time either.
It is, though, fair to make a general observation about fanatics who do things of this kind: they cannot tolerate how big cities behave.
In April 1999, David Copeland, a neo-Nazi from Isleworth, waged a one-man, two-week bombing campaign in London that left three people dead, including a pregnant woman, and another 140 injured. In three separate attacks, Copeland placed nail bombs in Electric Avenue in Brixton, in Brick Lane in the East End and in the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street. His targets were, respectively, black Londoners, Asian Londoners and the clientele of a gay venue in Soho. For centuries, London has been home to an array of the types of people that individuals like Copeland cannot abide.
What we call Islamist terror similarly abhors the cosmopolitanism of big cities. Its mindset too longs to purge great urban centres of their openness and variety. Advocates of its ideology look at places like Manchester and London and Birmingham and more and see everything they loathe and fear. They hate our plurality, our individuality, our dynamism, our liberalism, our multiplicity, our spontaneity, our embrace of change and creativity, our appearance of disorder from which order somehow emerges without having to be forced on us. They hate our freedom. They hate our fun. They hate the things about big cities that so much of humankind loves them for.
The Manchester attack is the worst of its kind in the UK since the London Bombings of July 2005, in which 52 people were killed. The choice of target in Manchester suggests to me another part of the fury that fuels fundamentalist extremes – a misogynistic zeal for controlling the conduct of women and girls. Ariana Grande’s show was sure to draw a packed crowd of glammed-up, excited teenage and younger female children ready to let their inhibitions go. It is easy to imagine how a concert before such a crowd by a female pop star held in the heart of a major metropolis might have looked a soft and tempting target indeed for the kind of death-dreamer who seems to have been involved.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has said that the capital stands united with Manchester and its people. It so happens that my teenage daughter and I already had plans to travel to Manchester soon. We still look forward to our visit and we echo the sentiments of our mayor.
*The bomber was named later in the day as 22-year-old Salman Abedi.