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After Manchester – words that comfort may also obscure

May 26, 2017

I wrote on Monday, when reacting to the Manchester bombing, that I wouldn’t be reading the newspapers because I already knew what the politicians would say. I didn’t keep my word, but so it turned out.

Standing on her podium outside 10, Downing Street, Theresa May said all the right things – that “the terrorists will never win and our values, our country, and our way of life will always prevail”.

In describing the perpetrator, she used a word that seems to have been on the speechwriters’ list of standard expressions ever since the IRA started bombing Britain. That word was coward.

In his reaction to the attack, Donald Trump used a different word to describe those behind the bombing. He called them losers. Both expressions set me thinking.

You could argue that coward and loser are the antitheses of how leaders would like to think of themselves – or perhaps they reflect how they fear others might see them. During the General Election campaign, Theresa May been projecting herself – to the accompaniment of some mockery because of the endless repetition – as strong and stable. Loser is Trump’s favourite insult, hitherto hurled through Twitter at Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and a host of others. If there is anything that plays to his innermost insecurity, it must be the perception that he’s a loser.

Before we deal with Trump’s remarks, let’s first think about cowardice.

While it’s true that at times like this most people expect to hear formulaic utterances condemning the perpetrators, the description of acts of terrorism as cowardly grates on me and always has. Whether a person plants a bomb and detonates it remotely, or detonates a suicide device, can they really be called cowards?

I actually think it takes great courage – albeit of a warped and perverted kind – to kill yourself while the balance of your mind is sound, or even to risk your life in planting a bomb and walking away. You could claim that the bombers are no more cowards than those who advanced into the line of fire at the Somme or on Omaha beach. The difference lies in our perception of motivation and morality.

You could argue that the cowardice of people like Salman Abedi lies in their allowing their instincts as human beings to be overridden by peer or group pressure. That assumes that our instincts are to preserve life rather than to end it. Even if that is the case, it’s an instinct that is easily overridden, most commonly in the military. Note that ISIS described Abedi as a “soldier of the Caliphate”.

So where does this notion of the terrorist as cowardly come from?

In the UK at least, I suspect it has its origins in our perception of bullying. The bully picks on vulnerable people – people weaker than them.

Are bullies cowards? Only, perhaps, if they back off in the face of resistance. Even then, you could say that their behaviour is sensible. They get away with it until someone stands up to them. In playground mythology, that’s the pint-size David who punches Goliath on the nose, reducing him to tears of pain and humiliation.

So in our hallowed national narrative, Hitler was a bully. We stood up to him. In fact, anyone who tries to push us around is a bully, and they will not prevail. Hence the rhetoric that follows the terrorist attack. They will not change our way of life. They will not intimidate us. They will not win.

These are comforting words, because they encourage us to stand together, as the narrative claims we did we did during the Blitz. They help us to overcome our fear.

But are they the kind of words we really need to hear? In the immediate aftermath of an atrocity, perhaps they are. They allow us to focus on the positive. But in the long term? I’m not so sure.

Turning to Trump’s favourite word, it might also comfort us to believe that these people are losers. Again, I’m not convinced.

If the overall strategy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ilk is to unite the people of the Muslim world – dar al-Islam – under the banner of a caliphate, then that’s an ambition they are unlikely to achieve. The bitter division between Sunni and Shia will see to that. Nor will the black flag ever fly over Downing Street and the White House. But they only lose when they stop trying.

The tactics they use in the West are designed to provoke a reaction that forces Muslims to choose between “them and us”. That’s the intention behind the bombings and all the other acts of violence. If “they” – the secular state, the crusaders, the oppressors, the unbelievers – marginalise and persecute “us”, the Muslim community, then we, the thinking goes, will come together to defend our faith. We will send more of our children to Syria, and we will support those that remain to strike at the enemy with whatever means we have at our disposal.

So are those who are orchestrating acts of terror losers? It’s almost certain that the Islamic State will soon cease to exist as a territorial entity, so to that extent, yes, ISIS are losing. But Al Qaeda have shown that you don’t need a state to create havoc and division.

So let’s think about what these “losers” have achieved.

Since 9/11 they have caused the security services of many countries to gain the power to watch over their citizens to an unprecedented degree. They have forced us to think of them every time we go through security hurdles at airports. They were the catalyst for disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fear of an enemy within they that they have generated in the UK and the US contributed to the election of Donald Trump, and the decision of the UK to leave the European Union.

Now, as much as ever before, their influence is pervasive. Trump continues to try and ban visitors from seven countries that are perceived to be hotbeds of terrorism. In the UK, the presence of armed police on the streets is common where it was once rare. Soldiers guard our key institutions. The Manchester attack has a significant bearing on the outcome of the General Election by putting the government’s cuts in police and armed forces budgets firmly at the top of the debating agenda.

So let’s not kid ourselves that those who inspire, plan and execute attacks across much of the West and the Middle East are losers. They may not be winning in terms of their overarching objectives. But they’re not losers until they give up. Which most definitely they haven’t.

It suits us to denigrate the morality of those who use ultra-violence to achieve their aims. But we shouldn’t hide behind words that obscure the reality that we’re facing.

In my next piece, I’ll try and outline, from my limited perspective, a few of the realities that we need to recognise before we even begin to make the world a safer place for its children.

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