There was a preternatural silence in the heart of Manchester when I visited it after the attack. Only those obliged to either to patrol the streets with rifles and riot gear or to man the empty shops had ventured in. ‘Manchester is business as usual’ proclaimed an unnamed suit and tie in a news report. Yet the emptiness I witnessed suggested otherwise for I got something of a taste of the police state when I stepped off the train.
Numerous armed officers with assault rifles and hip holsters stood in groups of twos and threes around the station and its exit points. Something told me the optimistic Brit-pop days were over for Manchester, and the next generation would experience a very different reality from my own time in the city. This, Mr Khan, isn’t how its supposed to be. This isn’t part and parcel of living in a big city. I’ve never seen real assault rifles up close before.
I sat down on a small ledge, catching the attention of a sniffer dog, who trotted over and began to plunge his nose unceremoniously about my rigid body. For an instant, I felt a wave of uncertainty, afraid the dog might make a mistake and bark, and all the rifles would be aimed in my direction. But he passed over me without incident, leaving me free to continue out into the city. Much of the centre remained on lock down with long lines of fluttering police tape and armed sentinels posted along the access points to the Arena itself where 22 people were slaughtered and thousands of others lives destroyed and altered forever.
It’s hard to say why I visited. Morbid curiosity I suppose, I wanted to make it real to myself, even though the feeling that Manchester was ripe for a terrorist attack had been murmured about in bars and staff rooms for years, it was still hard for it to sink in.
I saw more camera crews than shoppers on my way to the town hall, who all the way from Piccadilly to the main hub of activity at Albert Square were stood on street corners talking in various languages to their respective audiences, surrounded by a halo of white vans and hundreds of tripods with their cameras all pointing at the bouquets and balloons which Europe is becoming so familiar with.
Like the assault rifles and deserted streets, I’ve never seen these floral tributes in real life, and when I stepped through the circle of satellite vans, rivers of cables and reporters tables, I was struck by the silence and the smell of scented candles which moved me more than I expected.
Armed guards and smell of mourning, is this now business as usual?
Among the flowers, there was a handmade cardboard slogan which was attracting some attention: ‘Love overcomes Hate’.
Love and hate indeed! I’m as tired of those two words as I am of solidarity. The disparity between the brutality of mass murder and the abstract nouns with which we respond strike me as increasingly childish and censorious of reality. ‘Love overcomes hate’ is a demand not to think any deeper about terrorism. At this point in the well-worn aftermath of meaningless platitudes, we might as well just throw sweets to the gathered crowds and all do the Hokey Cokey if this is going to the be the seriousness of our response into why this happened and the true motives behind it.
As I was scowling at the pointless sentiment, a hand tapped me on the shoulder: “Excuse me lady, are you a local resident?” I turned round to see a chiselled young man with a microphone, accompanied by a cameraman.
“Could you do a quick interview with us?”
I agreed and hastily tried to straighten my hair as the cameraman hoisted up his camera and the presenter readied the microphone.
“Do you believe that love can really overcome hate?”
I was rather taken aback by the question, and suddenly faced with the horror of giving my true opinion and to be judged by it, the camera might as well have been a shotgun aimed at me.
“I er…I’d like to think so, but not really,” I said, instantly dismayed at my own cowardice.
I wondered then, if the question was asked because the audience peering at me from the camera lens was as tired at the sanitised response to terror as I was, and the presenter was honing in that.
I elaborated on my answer:
“When I was the age of some of these victims, a bomb went off here, planted by the IRA, and some of my friends were caught in the attack. I’ve seen a lot of media comparisons, but I the two events are not similar. There was a warning given before the last bomb, and the people were able to evacuate, meaning it was not human beings who were the target but the buildings themselves. But with Islamic terrorism, the bombs are not to destroy buildings but human life – it was young girls themselves who were targeted, not bricks and mortar. It affects people deeply. Everybody at that concert, or who had tickets to see the next one, or anybody in the world who was a fan of Ariana Grande or pop music or concert goers in general, are affected, and it’s this impact that isn’t spoken about. After the IRA bomb, even now, when I enter the Arndale , I will think about the explosion, it is always in the back of my mind, I will think to myself ‘It could have been me, I could have been in that attack’ well this new generation will be thinking along those lines, millions of them. And they will think that for the rest of their lives. What do we say to them?”
“Yes, what to say indeed,” said the reporter. He thanked me for my time and left me to read some of the other tributes, but the day was surreal enough, and I felt it time to head home.
Is this bombing a turning point? Will the mainstream media finally open the debate on Islamic inspired terrorism, and stop pretending that love, solidarity and business as usual are acceptable responses to terror.