An American pop star. A stadium full of elated adolescent girls. And a suicide bomber. It’s the stuff of nightmares and today also a grim reality for the city of Manchester.
It seems illogical to look for reasons behind such senseless brutality. And yet, the familiar sifting through the ashes begins.
Was it an assault on so-called “British values”? An assault on teenagers having fun? Or was it just the work of a deranged lone wolf spurred on by the twin scourges of mental illness and the urge to spread fear and chaos in an otherwise peaceful city? As the news reports filtered in on Monday night and Tuesday morning, the final—and most common—scenario seemed to be the reality. The attacker was identified by the police as Salman Abedi, 22, born in Manchester to a family of Libyan descent.
Britain braced itself for the now depressingly familiar onslaught of minute-by-minute news alerts as the death toll rose from the high teens to low twenties, and the names of the victims were released. First was Georgina Callander, an 18-year-old “super fan” of concert headliner Ariana Grande. She’d been in her second year at a local college studying health and social welfare. A photo, taken of Callander and the pop star two years ago was suddenly plastered across the internet. It showed a sweetly beaming teenage girl, all braces and glasses, beside her glamorous American pop idol.
Next was little Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old school girl from Lancashire. She had attended the concert with her mother and older sister, both of whom were among the wounded and were in hospital receiving treatment when her death was announced by police.
And then there were the missing ones. Olivia Campbell, 15, had not been in contact with her family since the night before. Her phone was dead and the friend she attended the concert with was in hospital. Her mother, Charlotte Campbell, appeared on BBC radio and television news Tuesday morning, frantically begging the public for any information, holding a framed photo of her daughter up to the camera. Teen sweethearts Chloe Rutherford, 15, and Liam Curry, 19, of South Shields were also missing. Their young faces, and dozens of others, would be posted with the #MissinginManchester hashtag, which trended throughout the day on Twitter.
Flags were drawn down to half-mast and politicians, in the final weeks of a snap election campaign, cancelled all events.
What will it mean for Britain’s political future? With the Tories on track to win a significant majority on June 8, the fallout is likely only to bolster the expected result. The Tories are campaigning on a platform of strict immigration control and a hard Brexit. If the attacker turns out to be an Islamic fundamentalist (as looks likely) it’s hard to see the tides turning against them now.
Prime Minister Theresa May appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street and told the gathered press, “the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack. An attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation. This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have experienced in the United Kingdom. And although it is not the first time that Manchester has suffered in this way, it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worst attack to hit the north of England.”
In 1996, the city centre of Manchester was bombed by the provisional Irish Republican Army. As was often the custom then, a warning was called in 90 minutes before the attack. Seventy-five thousand people were evacuated from the area and while there were nearly 200 injured, in the end there were no fatalities.
Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a time of kinder, gentler terrorism?
Manchester police said the bombing was the work of one man who detonated a homemade bomb, constructed for maximum carnage. Witnesses to the event said they saw nuts and bolts strewn among the bodies. Another unnamed 23-year-old man has been arrested in South Manchester in connection to the attack.
The explosion took place just after the concert had ended, as the crowd began to make its way out of the arena. The bomber was waiting in a foyer adjacent to the stadium’s entrance. Eyewitnesses said they heard an enormous bang and many were thrown forward by the force of the blast. There was confusion and panic. Some said they believed a stairwell had collapsed. Others thought the explosion was the sound of balloons bursting—as Grande had ended her concert by releasing hundreds of balloons into the audience.
One mother, Emma Johnson, who was waiting for her teenaged children just 15 feet away when the bomb was detonated, described to the BBC the explosion as “this flash of light” followed by “smoke and shrapnel everywhere, glass everywhere and people screaming.”
“You watch these things on TV, and you think, ‘How awful, how terrifying,’ until you are in that situation it is the worst feeling I have ever experienced.”
The Queen released a letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Great Manchester expressing her condolences to the people of Manchester and praising the emergency services. “The whole nation has been shocked by the death and injury in Manchester last night of so many people, adults and children, who had just been enjoying a concert.”
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack but this has not been confirmed.