A man embraces a woman and a teenager as he collects them from the Park Inn Hotel where they were given refuge after the explosion at the Manchester Arena. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
I remember an American political commentator remarking once after a deadly spate of tornadoes hit the Mid-West that it was a terrible thing but had no policy implications, meaning that his interest in it was passing at best.
But the suicide bomber who blew himself up in the foyer of the Manchester Arena on Monday night was not like a tornado, or a tsunami. He went about his work with intent. He wanted to kill as many people as possible, preferably children, and did so in the certain knowledge that he, too, would die.
Let us be clear. While we may wish to understand such killers and their motivation, the main task we face as a society is to root them out and bring them to justice, dead or alive.
The interpretation of Islam represented by suicide bombers is foreign not just to the Christian understanding of religion but in conflict with one of the most basic principles of human existence: the wish to survive. In war, there are always soldiers who know that their chances of making it through in certain extreme circumstances are low. The Coldstream Guards defending the allied perimeter against the Germans during the evacuation at Dunkirk understood that they were expected to fight to the last man and did not waver in their duty. But in spite of the extreme peril of their situation, they still hoped to live to fight another day – which several hundred of them ultimately did.
What, though, of an Islamist “lone wolf” who straps on a suicide vest packed with explosives and ball-bearings before lurching into the middle of a crowd of innocent teenagers? What goes on in the mind of such a wretched figure as he reaches for the trigger and calls out (one assumes) “Allahu-Akbar” – God is great!
According to the extreme Salafist tradition of Islam, as practised by Isis and Al Qaeda, believers are honour-bound to create fear and havoc among the infidels, to the point where their will to resist is broken and conversion becomes inevitable. In pursuit of this blessed state, jihadis are told that their sins will be forgiven them and that a great prize awaits them in the life beyond.
The sad sack who travelled by train to Manchester’s Victoria Station with the intention of taking out as many people as he could, would have made his way through the station concourse convinced that he was doing God’s will. We will probably discover that he was a loser, with a string of failures to his name. What we will never know is the extent of the exaltation he felt as his bomb detonated and he imagined himself on the fast-track to Heaven.
So how do we deal with such murderous misfits? The police and the intelligence services do what they can and have prevented many attacks. At the same time, mainstream Muslim leaders have urged their co-religionists to take a different, peaceful path. But it’s not enough. The Muslim community itself has do do more of the heavy lifting.
As a young, Belfast-born journalist, I covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland and personally witnessed some of the worst IRA and Loyalist atrocities.
Most ordinary Catholics in the 1970s deplored the IRA bombing campaign. Most ordinary Protestants in the 1980s were appalled by the activities of UFF murder gangs. But there was always a sense in which the two wider communities understood that the killings were carried out in their names and that those responsible were soldiers in a cause to which they, too, subscribed. This is not to say that they endorsed the killings. But so long as it was the “other side” doing the suffering, a shrug of the shoulders was often as far as their condemnation went. There were even clerics who followed this line. After each abomination, there were priests available to provide comfort and absolution. There were pastors who, while condemning murder and torture from the pulpit, were ready to live and let die for the greater good.
The killing went on for 30 years.
In the case of Islam in the UK, I can only guess how the figures might break down. People lie all the time, not least to themselves. But I would not be shocked to learn that some otherwise respectable Muslims, while praying for the souls of the victims of Monday night’s bomb also spared a thought for the man responsible. They would never commit such an act of violence themselves and would be distressed if they came across one of their children being fitted out for a suicide vest. But if the result of a campaign of terror in which they played no part was ultimately the adherence of Britain to the true faith, would it not in the end have been justified?
I should emphasise that “some” is not the same thing as “most”. Nearly all British Muslims would, I feel sure, sincerely deplore mass-murder in the same way that a majority of Muslims deplores the sexual abuse of young girls. But just as many in the Asian community in Rotherham knew what was going on behind closed doors, and said nothing, so many Muslims are only too aware of extremists in their midst, but do little or nothing to expose them. It has been said before, and no doubt it will be said again, but isn’t it about time that the moral majority within Britain’s Muslim community showed itself ready, beyond mere words, to do everything necessary to bring this perverted death cult to an end? The police anti-terrorist hotline is 0800 789 321.