“WORDS cannot adequately express . . .” A phrase in the Prince of Wales’s letter of condolence after the Manchester bombing sums up the difficulty of responding to the attack by Salman Abedi on the innocent concertgoers at the Manchester Arena on Monday evening. Such inarticulacy is not, sadly, because occurrences like this are out of the ordinary, but because the words that properly address the grief and outrage felt at such an act are employed so often that they have come to sound like clichés.
Whatever the attacker’s motives, the most overwhelming reaction is incomprehension. Terrorist acts are designed to horrify, but generally to a purpose. The IRA bomb in 1996 devastated many buildings in central Manchester, including the cathedral, with no obvious effect, but the overall object of the bombing campaign was to defeat the British Government and advance the cause of a united Ireland. Islamist suicide bombers tend not to leave a note, and Islamic State spokesmen who lay claim for their actions seem unconcerned about giving any sort of justification. Direct quotations from their messages are unenlightening, such as this from after the Paris attacks in November 2015: “In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers from the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe — Paris.” All that can be gleaned is the utter disjunction of Islamist and rational thought. IS followers are fighting for survival in Mosul and neighbouring areas, and what sort of mind would conceive that an attack on a teenage audience in Britain might improve the organisation’s chances?
The assembly of religious leaders after such an attack has also become standard — “a gathering of people of all faiths and none” is the cliché here. But this remains a valuable response. Muslim leaders need to reassure their own flock and the public at large that Mr Abedi’s interpretation of Islam is not theirs, and the support of other religious figures is of particular help in this task. A comparison with the 1996 bomb, which caused great damage but thankfully no fatalities, might remind anyone tempted to blame Islam in general for such viciousness that not long ago the Christian religion was caught up in a geopolitical conflict.
At this point, while the wounded are still being tended and the dead are being mourned, faith is a consolation, not a threat. God’s love is being ministered through neighbours (of all faiths and none), hospital chaplains, and parish priests. Victims will be told that God did not cause the atrocity: he was in the midst of the sufferers. But, as in all such situations, it will not be the precise words that matter so much as the expression of solidarity in suffering, which is the true meaning of the cross.