The news out of Manchester this week has horrified people around the world. The attack had particular resonance for University of Auckland’s Dr Tom Gregory who has lived, studied and worked in the city. No stranger to terrorism, he is currently researching civilian casualties and the emotional experiences of those touched by contemporary conflict. He reflects on his own reaction to the news from Manchester, and how its citizens will cope with the aftermath.
I always find it tough to watch the footage of a terrorist attack, to look at images of traumatised victims and listen to the testimony of grieving relations. When it happens in a city that you have lived in, then it is even more difficult. Not only do you have a personal connection to the landmarks you are watching in the news – I must have walked past the Arena a hundred times – but you also have a connection to the people. The victims could easily have been students I taught at the university, they could have been colleagues I used to walk past in the corridor or regulars at my local pub.
To be honest, it has knocked me for six.
While our thoughts go immediately to the victims and their families and friends, and questions of how they cope with the public, political, violent deaths of their loved ones, there are other questions that come to mind.
We want to know why Manchester and why this softest of targets? While it is tempting to rush into speculation and debate to find these answers, it is sensible to wait until investigations are a little further along. We should be careful about rushing to conclusions or imposing our own narratives on to events. Although details have begun to emerge about the man responsible and his experiences, we should wait until investigators have a much clearer picture about what he did, and what motivated him to do it.
We also want to know how vulnerable we are and could this happen in New Zealand? The fear engendered by these seemingly random terror attacks is understandable, but we need to keep it in perspective. Although we have seen some horrifying events in cities across Europe, they are still rare. You are much more likely to be killed by a family member or a loved one than you are by a terrorist.
What is very real though is the hatred and unrest that can be whipped up by atrocities like this. Right-wing groups have already tried to hijack the city’s grief and use it for their own ends. Already there have been attacks on mosques and not-too-subtle language used about certain communities in the press. The worry is that this attack will be used, cynically, to further stigmatise and alienate the Muslim community.
So far, and overwhelmingly, the response from Mancunians has been one of solidarity and concern. It is a genuinely multicultural city and has responded in a genuinely multicultural manner. We have already heard stories about the Sikh taxi driver who, along with taxi drivers, gave free lifts home to those who were at the hospital, we have seen pictures of a Rabbi from a local synagogue handing out coffees to the police and members of the Muslim community have come together to raise funds for the victims and their families.
These stories of cohesion and commonality amid the horror are crucial: We will not defeat terrorism by allowing our communities to be torn apart, but by coming together to understand what drives individuals to commit such heinous acts and doing the painstaking work that is needed to help those who are vulnerable.