In his charismatic sermon at last weekend’s Royal Wedding, Bishop Michael Curry, borrowing from Teilhard de Chardin, gave a great paean of praise to fire. Fire, he said, “to a great extent made human civilisation possible”, and he went on to celebrate its role in cooking food, warming places, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Revolution, providing cars, planes, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. “Fire makes all of that possible, and de Chardin said fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history,” he added. “And he then went on to say that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love – it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”
The Bishop was certainly telling part of the tale of fire, and the right bit for such a happy occasion, but it wasn’t the whole story. An inquiry is opening and an anniversary taking place which, taken together, are reminders that the power of fire can destroy as well as create. The investigation is into the Grenfell blaze and opened yesterday. At least seventy-two people died, though the final toll may well be higher – burnt to death or suffocated or dying later of their wounds. The anniversary is that of the Manchester bombing, which took place a year ago today. Salman Ramadan Abedi, whose parents had fled to Britain from Libya to escape the Gaddafi regime, detonated an explosive device crammed with nuts and bolts, to act as shrapnel. The venue was the foyer of the Manchester Arena in the immediate aftermath of an Ariana Grande concert. The bomb was powerful enough to kill people who were standing up to 20 feet away. Twenty-two were killed and some 250 injured. The youngest person to die was an eight year old girl. Of the 139 people hospitalised after the explosion, 79 were children.
It would be wrong to pronounce on the Grenfell horror when the inquiry has only just opened, though Phil Taylor’s piece on this site from the days after the fire provides some necessary context. But it be worth looking back at the Manchester atrocity, and grasping that it was a textbook case of how Islamist terror works here – or has to date, anyway. Abedi was not a clean-skin unknown to the authorities. Like Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 gang, and like Michael Adebolajo, one of the murderers of Lee Rigby, he was on the security services’ radar. He was not an undeviating practitioner of an austere form of Islam. He may still have been drinking alcohol a year before the murders, and also had a history of smoking cannabis. He had dropped out of university and been linked to petty crime. There are claims that family members were implicated in the bombing and police reportedly believe that other people were aware of his plans. Like Khan, who spoke of “my people”, seeing these not as his fellow British citizens, regardless of religion, but as Muslims abroad, Abedi felt no sense of attachment to the country that had given his family shelter.
No integration and cohesion policy, however well-worked, can reach and change the Abedis amongst us. The only means of stopping them at source is security work – and, though the services failed on this occasion, with terrible consequences, we should also recognise their successes, which by their very nature usually go unreported, and honour their toil. That the Manchester slaughter, like the London Bridge attack, took place during an election campaign shouldn’t lull us into thinking that such assaults won’t take place at other times. That’s also true of attacks on Muslims, like the attempted murders at Finsbury Park Mosque. Though the Russian threat was felt this year on the streets of Salisbury, the Islamist one hasn’t gone away.
The hate that Abedi will have felt was the opposite of love. But he was undoubtedly attached to something – to terror, to a hysterical rejection of the country whose freedoms he had enjoyed, to a distorted image of what his religion required, to a fanaticism so deranged that he saw teenage girls as targets. Like fire, like any force, human passion can run destructively awry.