Something tells me I’ll remember where I was when my phone flashed to life yesterday, the Associated Press and Twitter simultaneously igniting with word of the attack.
Like with Aurora (driving through Acton with a friend on the way back from some random outing), Sandy Hook (in a stairwell at school, studying for history), and Orlando (drinking sake with a friend at my summer sublet, talking about philosophy), I’ll remember how quickly the smile on my face, well-worn from a night with two good friends on the streets of Greece, faded as I opened the apps and started reading. And kept reading. And stayed that way until 3 a.m., when I could no longer keep them, at that point colored a bleary red and wet from livid, heartbroken tears, from sliding shut.
When the dust settled, the death count sat at 22. At least 59 others injured. All had at least one thing in common – they’d taken advantage of the chance to see Ariana Grande, a pop singer (and, notably, a sex-positive symbol to the worldwide feminist and queer communities) perform live in the British city of Manchester. This decision brought them into the orbit of destructive violence, carried out by a twisted individual who very likely knew none of his victims.
The Islamic State has since claimed responsibility. Police continue to investigate the attack, apparently perpetrated by a suicide bomber; but no matter what they find, whether it contradicts that terrorist syndicate’s statement or solidifies its accuracy, it’s painfully clear that a great many people’s lives have changed forever, in terrible ways. Some who woke up yesterday, questioning whether they’d have time to do the laundry before heading to work, will soon plan funerals for their children. Some who woke up yesterday, questioning whether they were stocked up on milk and eggs, will soon have to come to terms with likely permanent disability, the result of shrapnel that shred their arms and legs to bloody ribbons. Some who woke up yesterday, worrying about their friend or that boy or that girl, will never wake up again.
Since I first realized what had happened in Manchester, I’ve been trying to reconcile the tragedy with the world around it, a world I’ve long believed is good. A world I’ve long hoped puts winds into the sails of young children about to enter it. That doesn’t instead send nails, nuts, and bolts tearing through their clothes and skin.
Reading the reports pouring out of Manchester feels like twisting the knife. It’s nothing short of devastating to read about families separated, of the hours of terror spent in city streets and hospital waiting rooms, the anxious fingers flicking through social media, looking for up-to-date photos, any confirmation of a loved one’s survival, but all the while not knowing. It’s nothing short of agonizing to see newspapers begin naming victims. The first: Georgina Callander, 18, an active fan of Grande’s who went into the arena that night thrilled to see her idol run through hits from her latest album. The second: Saffie Rose Roussos, 8, who attended the concert alongside her mother and older sister, who both lie injured in local hospitals.
That’s so far. Further descriptions will emerge, and word of 20 further lives lost, and families decimated, will become public knowledge. When I say my heart is broken, I say that with a certain degree of self-loathing, well-aware that I’ll only know this tragedy from a distance. To me, the number that matters most is the total dead: not the age of the daughter I’ve just realized isn’t coming home, nor the number of texts I received from her last night. I feel selfish for the fact that my mind hasn’t drifted from this tragedy since word of the attack reached me, even though, unlike many, I have every ability to distance myself.
Something about it sticks in the gut. The attacker obviously understood his targets to be largely teens and young adults, including many young women, joined together in a celebration of pop music. Grande’s status as a feminist and LGBT icon, publicly outspoken on queer rights and often lyrically centered around sexual empowerment, was also widely known. The attacker knew few, if any, of the people his bomb was meant for, and chief among his motivations was to inflict not just pain but a sense of profound violation, at a concert intended as an outlet for many young adults whose assorted identities had likely before exposed them to some level of sexism, bigotry, or prejudice.
Concerts and similar venues, such as nightclubs, are frequently targets of terrorism. 39 people died at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, when a gunman opened fire on New Year’s Eve. In November of 2015, terrorists attacked the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, France, during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, killing 90. And, lastly, Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, a Floridian sanctuary for the state’s queer population, found itself under attack in 2016 by a gunman who unleashed carnage on a themed Latin Night, slaying 49 and carrying out the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Terrorists understand that such venues are all the more effective as targets for how they represent escapes from social pressures, arenas wherein people can feel liberated from that which, outside, threatens to oppress them. They understand that it just takes a backpack outfitted with an IED, or a loaded gun, to turn a haven into Hell. And they take advantage of that, seeking to rob victims of their safest spaces, to truly terrorize them by taking away the places they run when the world scares them. The most insidious facet of terrorism is how it functions as a power play. It disempowers civilians, tearing them from the fold of their society and draining from them a sense of not only physical but psychological security in both their locations and (as in the cases of Orlando and very possibly Manchester) their identities.
It’s hard to know how to feel anything but numb and agonized in the face of something so profoundly evil as the bombing of young concertgoers. I know a few things:
That hatred of any marginalized population the alleged attacker may have belonged to is not only misplaced but destructive, representing a shadow of the same toxic enmity that led to the construction, and detonation, of that explosive.
That Manchester and its community was shattered last night, but its healing will happen, gradual though it may be. Families are broken, and that sense of safety is all but destroyed. Sending love and, if you can afford to, more, will prove quietly important.
Most importantly, I know that safe spaces are critical. These communities, and others often targeted by hate (including Muslim populations in England), are always in need of places to gather, to celebrate, to breathe, to communicate, to cry, to heal, to hurt, to live. One such space was violated last night. We must do what we can to establish, celebrate, and guard these spaces, so as to keep them safe for those who need them more than ever in the aftermath of terror.
I wish I could end this with a rallying cry of courage in the face of adversity, some “hope is bulletproof” sentiment that would leave you all less heavy. I don’t have that today. I’ll be parsing through the coverage out of Manchester as it emerges, and I have nothing left today but empathy for the attack’s wholly innocent victims, and outrage at the horror that’s befallen them.
This world is never fair, and it can always use more light to drive back the dark. We lost light in 22 senseless deaths last night. That much is inescapable. But in communicating support for the survivors, mourning the victims, and working to hold up their families through the most keen pains they’ll ever have to bear, we can bring back some light. And we can keep hope alive – hope for love, hope for life, and hope against hope, so that our world might better find its way out of this grief we feel today into healing that can guide us through tomorrow.
Header image: Creative Commons.