What is it that makes a person, born in the UK, educated in the UK, supported by the systems in the UK, become a suicide bomber? The tragic and sudden deaths of 23 people have left wounds so deep that even time and space are unable to erase the atrocities indelibly steeped in the memory for generations.
In time to come, an in-depth historical account on the legacy of the bombing and its impact on local communities will one day be written but, for now, pain, so visceral, has locked Manchester into collective anguish, as a grieving city laments the loss of innocence.
Evil is evil. For just when this nation thought the terrorist had done their worst, a murderous trio filled their van with petroleum bombs, and used mysterious, ceramic pink knives to murder and maim people in the streets. This time, it was the turn of London to experience the terror of evil.
Why would young men strap a bomb to their waists, and detonate it to cause maximum damage in a country that has seemingly cared for them? Why would Salman Abedi – a son of Moss Side, a pupil in Burnage Academy for Boys, student at Salford University – employ extreme violence to betray the place of his birth? Looked at through a theological lens, I guess such evil can make some sense. By its very nature, evil is totally unpredictable – unable to differentiate between colour, class, gender or location. Yet, despite its random tentacles, God is permanently present with those impacted by evil.
Looked at through a human lens, the most recent terrorist attacks do not make sense – made more complex because the attackers have had strong connections with the UK. Why would you bite the hand that feeds you in such a sadistic way? Perhaps that is part of the problem. They have not been fed. Or, put another way, they feel they have not been fed. Treated unjustly by the system. Marginalised by privilege. Many analysts, who have sought to examine the reasons behind similar acts of terror, believe that extreme indoctrination and radicalisation, combined with feelings of vulnerability and alienation, create a perfect storm – the making of young suicide bombers, who will stop at nothing to vent their anger on a society they believe has ‘let them down’. Yet this does not warrant killing people in Westminster and London Bridge, or in a concert hall in Manchester. Surely, there have to be other reasons.
It appears the most comprehensive research on this matter has been conducted in Australia. The research outcomes point to a fascinating development: namely, most terrorists come from ‘unstable homes’, making young boys susceptible to a dogma that claims to provide ‘family’, ‘security’, ‘relationships’. These false narratives permeate into already anxious, vulnerable minds, making it relatively easy for terrorist groups to create suicide bombers. How accurate these finding are I really do not know. What I do know is that terrorism is brought about mainly by family instability or societal dislocation or is, in part, a response to the suffering of Muslims. The fact is, there are some extremely angry young people walking the streets of Manchester, London and elsewhere, sucked into terrorist organisations because they feel their voices are heard and their anger taken seriously. I guess when you believe you have next to nothing to live for, and you are told that death for an ideology will bring you worldwide fame, will help to highlight certain injustices and give you a place in paradise, the temptation to choose death over an ‘unstable’ existence is strong.
I often reflect on the time when a colleague approached me after a sermon I had preached about justice. He said: “I see you are still an angry Black man?” I know he meant it as a negative, an insult. After some reflection, I chose to see it as a compliment. There is nothing wrong with having some creative anger in your belly. Movements like Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, the Suffrage and Civil Rights Movements, Disability Rights and Global Justice were not created by people with a benign commitment to the world order. Far from it. These and many other movements were predicated on people’s interpretation of the world. An unfair word, disproportionately stacked against the disadvantaged, needing to be challenged. In each of these contexts, anger has often been the motivator behind the truth-telling.
There is nothing wrong with anger. It needs to be channelled into something creative. Blowing innocent people up is obviously not a good use of it. Protesting at the response from Theresa May’s Government, to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster by descending on Whitehall, chanting “May must go, justice for Grenfell” is an appropriate and creative use of it. Churches need to provide safe spaces for young people to be angry. Jesus got angry. His response to the scoundrels in the Temple was not exactly passive. When He saw how people were being ripped off in the sacred place, He lost it big time. In a world where young people often feel their frustration and anger are not heard by political parties, local authorities, educational systems, businesses and churches, churches need to become adept at guiding the anger of young people. Social media has attempted to do it by creating outlets for young people. Churches can do better. Indeed, must do better. What we have seen in Manchester – and more recently London – reminds the Church of the importance of skilful discipleship.