Solidarity vs. scapegoating after Manchester

May 25, 2017

The horrific attack was met with an outpouring of solidarity and a spirit of unity among ordinary people--a stark contrast to the scapegoating of political leaders and the media.

DAYS AFTER the bombing in Manchester, England, the stomach-turning brutality of the act is still hard to fathom.

But in the days to come, we will also be horrified by the use that political leaders and reactionaries of all kinds will make of this tragedy to justify more repression, violence and war--unless, that is, the tide of solidarity and sympathy that followed the nightmare on Monday night prevails against those who would exploit it.

The style of the attack in Manchester and choice of weapon were awful enough on their own--a suicide bombing with an explosive device reportedly packed with nails, nuts and bolts in order to inflict maximum carnage.

But the fact that the bombing was carried out at a large arena as a concert was letting out--with the casualties concentrated among an audience of primarily young women and girls, even children, along with relatives who were picking them up--adds a further layer of horror. In all, 22 people were killed and 59 injured, some severely.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reported panic and confusion among parents wanting to know if their children were safe--and the same among young concertgoers if they couldn't find the adults they were meeting afterward. "It would appear that this was targeting kids," Langfitt said.

A shrine for the victims of the Manchester attack in St. Anne's Square
A shrine for the victims of the Manchester attack in St. Anne's Square

SPECULATION IMMEDIATELY turned to terrorism, especially given the parallels to the November 2015 coordinated attacks in Paris on a rock concert at the Bataclan concert theater, the Stade de France soccer stadium, and bars and cafes. The Manchester bombing is the most deadly attack in the UK since July 2005, when a terrorist attack on London's public transit system killed 56 people, including the four people who carried it out.

Police have identified the suicide bomber in Manchester as Salman Abedi. Abedi was born in Manchester in 1994 after his parents emigrated from Libya, fleeing the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi. Though Abedi's motives remained unclear, some friends report that his views appeared to become more extreme after visiting Libya in 2011, when his parents returned to live in that country.

According to reports, Abedi may have been banned from a Manchester mosque in 2015 after expressing support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and he may have traveled to Syria as well as Libya. His parents, apparently alarmed by his shifting views, reportedly took away his British passport for a time, returning it to him when he said he wanted to travel to Mecca. Instead of flying to Saudi Arabia, however, Abedi returned to Britain.

As of Wednesday night, at least four other people had been arrested as a result of the investigation into the bombing, and authorities claim to be investigating a wider "network" of potential terrorist suspects and plots.

The day after the attack, a statement from ISIS claimed responsibility--but ISIS has a history of claiming terrorist acts even when it has no direct connection to them. As this article was being written, there was no public evidence of Abedi's relationship, if any, to ISIS.

In any case, it bears repeating: Whatever the grievances of Abedi and others who may have been involved in the bombing--however much the brutality inflicted on the Middle East or the repression and Islamophobia experienced in Europe figured in their motives--nothing could justify the horror they inflicted.

The victims of this attack--mainly young women attending a concert and their family members--had nothing whatsoever to do with causing Islamophobia in Europe or carrying out the "war on terror." Meanwhile, those who are responsible now have a perfect excuse for intensifying Western wars on the Middle East and political repression at home, while claiming the support of ordinary people outraged by terrorism.

The scapegoating of Muslims and clampdowns on civil liberties feed directly into the aims of ISIS and other groups espousing a reactionary interpretation of Islam. Those who are now demonizing all Muslims as potential terrorists and Islam as a "religion of violence" share with ISIS a commitment to the "clash of civilizations" narrative that says Muslims can never be a fully accepted or integrated into Western society.

ISIS has been explicit in the past about using terrorist attacks as a provocation that, by inviting repression against Europe's Muslim population, extinguishes the possibility of solidarity.

In typical fashion, some British political leaders rushed to deliver on that aim of ISIS.

UK PRIME Minister Theresa May raised the country's terrorism threat level to "critical" and deployed military forces to work with police, citing fears that another terrorist attack may be imminent. Some 3,800 soldiers are now deployed across Britain to patrol "sensitive" areas--along with stepped-up police patrols and investigations.

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the head of National Counter Terrorism Policing, said in a statement that the military deployment was meant to reassure the public that "we are flexing our resources to increase police presence at key sites, such as transport and other crowded places, and we are reviewing key events over the coming weeks."

But for many, many people across the UK and the rest of Europe, when the police "flex their resources," that means harassment, scapegoating and worse for immigrants and minorities, particularly Muslims.

Meanwhile, May and her Conservative Party have a golden opportunity to exploit the issue of terrorism in the lead-up to the June 8 general election--and shore up their support against the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, which had been gaining on the Tories, according to recent opinion polls.

Britain's reactionaries hate the thought of a Labour victory. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, the right-wing tabloid, the Sun, owned by billionaire bigot Rupert Murdoch, ran a screaming front-page headline "Blood on his hands" on May 23 accusing Corbyn of being soft on terrorism.

The Sun article was apparently published before news of the Manchester bombing broke and accused Corbyn of "boosting of the morale" of Irish Republican Army "killers" when he expressed solidarity with the struggle for Irish freedom--but it is typical of the reactionary and opportunistic rants to follow from the media and politicians.

As British socialist Kevin Ovenden wrote on social media:

We don't know the actual level of the security threat. But Theresa May cannot be trusted not to be exploiting it with her decision to put troops on the streets in various locations....She was trying to run a presidential, authoritarian campaign before yesterday, and will do so now.

The answer to that must be mass democratic political engagement. It is that, actually, which provides the basis for a safer society.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE, of course, to disregard the role of the U.S. government and its policies in the "war on terror" in fueling the reaction.

As if to prove the point, Donald Trump seemed to revel in the most juvenile and facile response. "So many young, beautiful innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life," he said while on a trip to the Middle East. "I won't call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that's a great name. I will call them from now on losers, because that's what they are. They're losers."

Lost amid the platitudes and threats of political leaders and the anti-Islam obsessions of the media is the fact of the horrors visited on other countries by the West--more frequently and on a much larger scale.

a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week, for example, noted that between April 23 and May 23, 225 civilians, including 36 women and 44 children, were killed by air strikes by the U.S. and its allies in Syria--the deadliest month on record for casualties in the West's stepped-up war.

But there will be no videos of Syrian mourning, nor the words of Syrian families who have to bury their dead children.

Islamophobia was the other central component to the elite response to Manchester.

Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, for example, called for the "internment of thousands of terror suspects now to protect our children." On social media, right-wing Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins called for a "final solution" in response to the attack--the words the Nazis used to refer to the Holocaust.

With this kind of climate existing in the media, there's little doubt that the far right, which has been on the rise in Europe, will try to exploit fears of terrorism to build its own base of support.

Britain's English Defense League (EDL), for example, attempted to rally in Manchester the day after the attack, carrying British flags outside a shopping center in the city's center. In a statement released after the bombing, the EDL called for people to "stand up to Islamism" in order "to prevent future Islamic atrocities and intimidation across the UK."

Such calls will fuel attacks, physical and otherwise, on Arabs and Muslims and embolden the anti-Muslim political climate. As the Independent reported, just five hours after the Manchester bombing, a mosque in the city of Oldham was set on fire in a suspected arson attack.

THE HOPE for an alternative lies in the solidarity of ordinary people rejecting the hate and scapegoating of the far right. Fortunately, the immediate response to the Manchester attack gives us reason for that hope.

In the aftermath of the bombing, news reports described cab drivers--many of them Muslim--turning off their meters to drive stranded people home throughout the night. Others gave people water or charged their mobile phones.

On social media, Manchester residents offered their homes to stranded strangers, and hotels opened their doors to children trying to locate their parents and others needing a place to stay.

Around the world, millions were moved by the reports of homeless men who had been sleeping nearby rushing to help the victims, removing glass and nails from wounds and comforting the severely injured. "I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I'd just walked away," Stephen Jones told ITV. "There's a lot of good people in Manchester who help us out, and we need to give back, too."

The evening after the bombing, thousands of people packed Manchester's Albert Square, mourning those who were lost, praising emergency workers for their help, and vowing not to be intimidated by violence.

Especially important, the EDL didn't go unopposed as it tried to rally Manchester residents around its racist hate.

When the group's members tried to rally in Manchester after the attack, a multiracial crowd of local residents gathered to oppose them--and outnumbered the bigots.

one man who confronted the EDL spoke for people all over the world in putting forward an alternative to fear and scapegoating:

The people of Manchester don't stand with your xenophobia and racism. The people of Manchester are going to stick together, no matter what religion you follow, no matter what the color of the skin is. We're not going to stand with people like you.

We're going to stick together, because together, we are stronger, and the people of Manchester are not going to be afraid of who is responsible for this violence.

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