Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
It is conventional to describe terrorist attacks as “cowardly”, and world leaders did so in the aftermath of the abomination in Manchester. But I’m not sure it’s the right word to apply to a suicide bomber.
You could argue, I suppose, that self-slaughter is intrinsically cowardly. G.K. Chesterton, for example, saw courage as being “a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die”, and believed that killing yourself was “the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life”. But even if you take this view of suicide in general, it’s an odd way to describe what happened on Monday night.
We are surely dealing here with something darker and more troubling than cowardice. Try to hold in your mind, for a moment, what took place. Young girls, teenagers and pre-teens, spend weeks looking forward to a concert, arranging to go with their friends, planning where to meet for pizza before. On the day itself, they Snapchat each other, co-ordinating what they’re going to wear. They trot excitedly away from their parents, full of anticipation. They end the night shredded by nails and shrapnel.
I know it wasn’t pleasant to read that last sentence. God knows, it wasn’t pleasant to write it either. But we need to understand what we are dealing with here. What kind of man, confronted with a crowd of cheerful girls holding pink balloons, feels nihilistic rage? Trying to explain what happened in terms of ideology takes us only so far. When we think of other mass murders of children – the horrors at Dunblane or Sandy Hook, for example – we don’t try to rationalise the perpetrators’ motives. We accept that there is evil under the sun, and that there are some people to whom the usual rules of human behaviour don’t apply.
Sure, Salman Abedi may, in his own mind, have had some ideological motive. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should take him at his own valuation. When Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people – again, many of them teenagers – in Oslo and Utøya in 2011, he tried to justify himself with a rambling and narcissistic statement of policy. But most of us recognised him for what he was: a debased, depraved and possibly deranged criminal.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the people who were determined to blame “the Right” for Breivik are generally horrified when the same logic blames Muslims for Abedi, and vice versa. In truth, collective guilt is always wrong. All human beings are responsible for their actions. That is the basis, not just of the criminal justice system, but of every major religion and philosophy. As the Koran has it: “On the Day when every person will be confronted with all the good he has done, and all the evil he has done, he will wish that there were a great distance between him and his evil” (3:30).
The idea that we are dealing with evil, with criminality, rather than with some alternative ideology, should shape our vocabulary as well as our response. It is the thrill of imagining themselves as soldiers in an illicit cause that attracts potential terrorists. When we describe their crimes as part of a civilisational struggle, we unwittingly vindicate their view of themselves. Two years ago, on this site, I argued that one of our strongest weapons against the bombers should be scorn:
“Don’t take these losers at their own estimate. Stop treating them as some powerful shadowy network that threatens the state. Rather, laugh at them. Mock their shoe bombs and their underpants bombs and their tendency to blow themselves up in error.”
In the aftermath of an atrocity, of course, no one feels like laughing. Still, we shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to make our belligerence proportionate to our grief. Rather, we should think hard and coolly about how to defeat the murderers.
One leader who got the tone exactly right – surprisingly, you might think – was Donald Trump. He made a point of calling the murderer an “evil loser, not a monster”. Quite. Many of these jihadis are textbook losers, with histories of petty crime, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour. Like terrorists in every age and nation, they are looking for something that might validate their otherwise wretched lives and bring them a measure of fame.
They are losers, too, in the literal sense that they are being defeated. Al-Qaeda was crushed in Afghanistan. Islamic State gives ground every day in Iraq. Whereas, ten or fifteen years ago, Muslim leaders would condemn acts of terrorism, but then tack on criticisms of Western foreign policy, now the condemnation is unadorned and unequivocal. Isolated, lacking weaponry, up against some of the finest anti-terrorist forces in the world, the evil losers are driven to seek softer and softer targets: sports grounds, nightclubs, concert halls.
On Monday, one of them found the softest target of all: a foyer full of girls. Picking that target was far, far worse than cowardice. It was an act of supreme negation, a mockery of every human instinct, a denial of light and life and hope. And, if you are religious, it was something even more chilling. Salman Abedi’s final act was to spit in the face of God.
In a statement following the outrage, the Muslim Council of Britain expressed the hope that its perpetrator would face justice “in the next life”. Oh yes: he will wish that there were a great distance between him and his evil.