Being in Manchester this past week has meant being involved in the aftermath of last Monday’s suicide-bomber atrocity. We can only imagine the grief of those who were bereaved, or the suffering that will be endured by those who were maimed. We express our sympathy awkwardly: a public gathering with speeches and poetry; makeshift shrines made with flowers, candles and messages; a minute of silence observed in the city centre; all of this unrehearsed, impromptu and heart-felt. However, beyond our shocked reactions to the callous, cruel carnage, there remains the big question of what can be done to prevent this kind of thing happening again.
Throughout the inevitable commentary on the event there runs one particular thread: of this city standing together, of its various communities working as one to combat terrorism. However, therein lies a problem. For all the talk of pride in Manchester and its record of pioneering social equality, there is evidence that the city, like so many others, is rapidly deteriorating into a fragmented entity in which “standing together” is increasingly difficult. Housing shortages, inequalities in educational opportunities, homelessness and ghetto-isation are trends emerging here – as elsewhere – as a result of its land being treated as an asset to be traded for maximum profit, often by outsiders. Taken to its logical end – rich people living in luxurious central towers, the rest housed on cheap estates, or not housed at all – how will it be possible for a city to function as a whole, to nurture all of its citizens and to take care not to marginalise anyone to the extent that they will turn against their own?
Currently showing at the city’s public art gallery is an exhibition of photographs of Mancunians taken by Shirley Baker during the time of the post-war slum clearances. They give an overall impression of poverty and desolation, although there is a bright future in the offing in the form of hygienic, humane housing . And, despite the ruination, children are playing, apparently happy and unsupervised, on the grimy, dilapidated streets and un-cleared bomb-sites, a reflection of the spirit of community they enjoyed. Subsequently, however, that spirit was too often broken by the removal of families to housing estates and high-rise developments, the work of urban planners who, at that time, worked on utopian principles that omitted some of the binding ingredients of community, such as interaction on neighbourhood streets. (See, if you can, the documentary film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City about the woman who spearheaded a campaign in the 1950’s which thwarted plans to ruin New York neighbourhoods with ill-conceived developments including urban highways and population segregation.)
Social alienation in itself is not the root cause of an individual’s determination to kill their neighbours, but it is certainly fertile ground for the recruitment of people who might be persuaded to do so. The religious beliefs that underpin the death cults of ISIL and Al Quaeda are, to the majority of religious believers, contradictory of the idea of a deity who is wise, loving and merciful towards its diverse creations and has an interest in seeing them flourish. As the author Rebecca West once put it: If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anyone bow down or stand up to Him. The blame for barbarity in the name of religion lies not at the door of any god but in the hearts and minds of people. To quote another, more famous, author, Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
The ultimate prevention of atrocities committed in the pursuit of religious fanaticism is not within the power of our armed forces, intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies but in the spread of enlightenment, knowledge and compassion delivered via communities bound together by shared interests.