“How do you spell condolences?”
It’s the morning of the 23 May 2017. Last night a bomb went off in Manchester Arena. When I’d fallen asleep, there were conflicting rumours about what had happened. It still seemed possible that the ‘bang’ was a burst balloon or a faulty speaker. This morning I’m on the other side of the country and looking after my little cousins. The eldest had begged their mum to buy tickets for the Ariana Grande concert that is all over the news this morning, asking if they could crash at mine afterwards, but my aunty had said “not this time”.
My cousin asking how to spell ‘condolences’ is writing a message to the people of Manchester. She remembers her mum using the word ‘condolences’ in a card to a friend. In her mind, ‘condolences’ is a ‘grown-up’ word, it’s respectful. Writing ‘I’m sorry someone you love died’ seems clumsy. It sounds childish. It’s too honest and blunt. And ‘I’m sorry’ makes it about you, but ‘my condolences’ is more detached, which is apparently more ‘grown-up’.
All the kids know about the attack and have a lot of questions. I am a ‘grown-up’ to them and am supposed to have the answers. Why did he do it? Why was it a pop concert? What can we do to help? What are the ‘grown-ups’ on the television doing about it? Will it happen again? I’m grateful I can tell them that this attack was terrible but unusual and they’re safe. I can’t imagine what people whose everyday existence is defined by conflict say to the questions their children ask them.
The violence in Manchester Arena was so horrific because the attacker specifically targeted children and teenagers. That’s why you can’t write about it. How can you create meaning from something like that? How is it possible to talk about politics afterwards without being disrespectful? Most people agreed that 23rd May was not a day for politics. Campaigning for the general election was suspended out of respect. People don’t want political debate in the aftermath of tragedy. They want to unite, to honour the victims and remember how valuable life is. But then a ‘journalist’ whose name I refuse to write called for a ‘final solution’ on social media. Then someone whose name is still unknown set fire to a mosque in Oldham.
There are still people who will not let go of the archaic, simplistic ‘clash of civilizations’ story peddled by the mainstream media that is used to demonize Muslim people and avoids confronting difficult questions about the UK’s foreign policy and arms sales. This is a choice that these people are making every day, to hold on to this story and the prejudice it enables. They are free to stop making this choice anytime they want.
Recognising that military intervention taken by our government which causes instability in other places will affect the safety of those in the UK does not absolve murderers of any blame. Equally, recognising the suffering of the victims of UK military intervention does not undermine the devastation of what happened in Manchester. We know that the perpetrator had close ties with Libya. We also know that a 2015 foreign affairs committee on David Cameron’s 2011 intervention in Libya was reported to have found that it ‘was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’.
It takes a while for a human to become dangerous, violent and bitter in only the way that a ‘grown-up’ can be. Because it’s not natural for us? I think and hope so anyway. It’s not unusual for adults to say that they learn just as much from children as they teach them. Children are curious about difference before they are fearful of it because their heads are less full of shit that other people have put in there. They ask questions that wouldn’t occur to most adults. And they ask lots of questions, ‘indelicate’ or ‘naïve’ questions, questions about the most ‘obvious’ things.
Some questions my little cousins have asked me:
- “Why is that man bald?” (loudly asked while we were sitting next to him)
- “Why can’t we just give homeless people a house?” (asked by all of them multiple times whenever they visit me in Manchester)
- “Why do people keep abandoning animals?” “I want to know why they do it [fox hunting] because it’s not fair and what did the foxes ever do to you?”
- “Why can’t we just stop having wars?” (this question is especially popular after watching a news programme or looking at a paper)
It might feel wrong to talk about the general election now but it is important. Seeing the division in British politics between younger and older people is a symptom of the extent to which we are not united. And children are always on the front-lines of our collective mistakes because of their vulnerability. Whether they are targets in conflict or the victims of poverty, it is painful to see the way how many children are still forced to ‘grow up’ at an early age because of injustice in 2017. The survivors of the attack in Manchester on 22nd May, of all ages, have had their faith in people tested in an awful way. We should not give them reasons to become cynical. The love in the Manchester’s community response to the attack is hope in chaos.
Children have human rights. This means that all children have the right to not be harmed in conflict and it is our responsibility to try to protect them, whether that means opening our homes to refugee children fleeing conflict, or protesting reckless cuts to our police forces and NHS. But children have the right to more than this because they aren’t possessions, either of their family or society, to simply be preserved from harm. They have the right to life, survival and development. To education, culture and the arts. To freedom of expression. They are human beings who have the right to ask questions that make us uncomfortable and do not have simple answers.
Three questions that children in the UK have an especial right to ask us during this general election, and we should ask on behalf of them:
- Why did a 2015 United Nations report find that the Conservative government’s welfare cuts and the UK’s justice system are stripping children in the UK of their human rights? (read in full here)
- Why is child poverty in Britain still rising? (for proof just look around, but if you don’t believe it then the basic numbers are here)
- Theresa May, why did you vote in favour of irresponsible military intervention in Libya in 2011?
“Why can’t we just stop having wars?”
Dismissing the goals of peace and unity as naïve or impossible does not make you a ‘grown-up’, it is cynical and damaging to our collective wellbeing. We need to at least try to break the cycle of violence we are trapped in.
Manchester’s been my home for three years now. I love and respect how many people here understand the power of solidarity. They know that showing solidarity with others does not undermine their own identity, or any pain that they feel. It is not a black-and-white issue like that. The natural feelings of grief and outrage caused by this terrible attack should strengthen our conviction that all children, no matter where they live, deserve protection from bombs.
The UK mainstream media keeps presenting us with black-and-white stories that shut down our natural curiosity and encourage us to ‘pick a side’. You can’t ask useful questions about the fundamentals of society if you are part of a black-and-white, which-side-are-you-on debate constructed by media. The Sun’s widely-criticized front page that presented a picture of Saffie Roussos next to her killer with the headline ‘PURE / EVIL’ is an example of the way media outlets which present these black-and-white stories will exploit and sensationalise real tragedy to do so. Saffie and her loved ones did not deserve to have their pain reduced to a comic to sell papers. I whole-heartedly endorse the boycott of The Sun to anyone who is still buying it.
I’m not going to pretend I can imagine all the questions that must be plaguing the survivors and grieving loved ones of victims of the attack. Their grief is private. But I hope the love in Manchester’s response can help them at the times when they need community. I don’t know where the phrase ‘Stay strong our kid’ came from but it’s cute and I think it says a lot about Manchester’s sense of community: strength means solidarity and don’t get sucked into the cynical bullshit. Stay hopeful.
In the aftermath of the tragedy on 22nd May, the stories of how many people wanted to help bring comfort. The first responders were amazing. There were people who ran towards the chaos to find those who needed help. People and businesses supported members of the NHS and police force, who were working long and stressful shifts, by bringing them tea and food. Taxi drivers offered free lifts to those affected by the attack. So many people turned out to donate blood on the 23 May that Give Blood NHS released a statement to locals saying they had enough blood stocks.
Children in Manchester are going to have a lot of questions and anxieties right now. This attack has undermined their sense of safety in their hometown. And most adults probably have similar questions and anxieties. As a community, we need to reconcile these anxieties with our faith in people so we don’t become cynical and give up. We might not always have the answers to kids’ questions but we shouldn’t discourage them from asking just because it makes us feel vulnerable or uninformed. Often these are the questions that we should begin with in trying to understand and solve the problems our world is facing.
Solidarity to everyone in Manchester and beyond xxx