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The lesson of Manchester? Technocracy is no match for evil

The Islamist atrocity at the Manchester Arena raises some serious questions about our society.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Identity Politics UK

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Last week, a mother from South Shields said something about modern Britain that should haunt everyone who hears it. It was Caroline Curry, mother of Liam, the 19-year-old boy who perished in the Islamist bombing of the Manchester Arena in May 2017, alongside his girlfriend, Chloe Rutherford, who was just 17. In an emotional statement following the publication of the third and final volume of the Manchester Arena Inquiry’s vast report on that grimmest of atrocities, Mrs Curry said she would spend the rest of her life trying to protect her other children – ‘because, as we found out through this process, once you leave the safety of your home, you are on your own’.

Her voice wobbled as she uttered those words, as if she suddenly became aware of the gravity of what she was saying, the sheer moral weight of it. Namely, that our society often fails to protect its citizens, even its young citizens. That the safety we think we enjoy as a result of the social infrastructure that has built up over decades and centuries might actually be illusory. That a corrosion of moral and social responsibility so grave has taken place that we now cannot even shield the very young – young, happy lovers, in this case, teenagers of ‘outstanding promise’, in the words of the inquiry – from evil itself. That Mrs Curry, and no doubt others, believe the key lesson of the barbarism at the Manchester Arena is that when you leave your home ‘you are on your own’ is a testament to the social disarray of our times, and to the role that this disarray played in the despicable events in Manchester six years ago.

Her words are apt and true. The catalogue of society’s failures over Manchester is extensive. At every stage of Salman Abedi’s suicidal atrocity that claimed 22 lives – in the months before it, the hours before it, the minutes after it, and the years since it – the social and moral disorder of the current moment at the very least compounded his evil act. The latest volume of the inquiry’s report concerns the radicalisation of Abedi and the possible ‘preventability’ of his violent deed. It points a severe finger at the intelligence services, finding that MI5 missed a significant chance to take action that might have prevented the bombing.

The report says the security services acquired information about Abedi in the months before the attack, which it refers to as ‘Piece of Intelligence 1’ and ‘Piece of Intelligence 2’. Experts witnesses told the inquiry that, taken together, these two pieces of intelligence strongly suggested Abedi was engaged in something of ‘national-security concern’. ‘National-security concern’ means one thing only, the report points out: ‘potential terrorist activity’. If proper ‘investigative action’ had been taken, says the report, it would have led to Abedi being ‘treated extremely seriously’ and possibly even followed to the Nissan Micra in which he had stored his bomb materials. It is possible that ‘actionable intelligence’ would have been discovered, and ‘the attack might have been prevented’.

But sufficient investigative action was not taken. MI5 failed. ‘[Had] we managed to seize the slim chance we had, those impacted might not have experienced such appalling loss and trauma’, its director-general said last week.

It wasn’t only MI5 that catastrophically messed up on the ‘preventability’ front. It felt almost surreal to read in the report that Abedi had open contact with a radical Islamist who was in prison. Abdalraouf Abdallah was remanded into custody at Belmarsh in 2014 after being charged with assisting acts of terrorism in Syria. He was convicted in 2016. While in Belmarsh, he phoned Abedi 38 times from the prison telephone. Abedi even visited him. When Abdallah was briefly released on bail in 2015, he spent ‘considerable time’ with Abedi.

Abdallah had an illicit mobile phone in jail, which was seized by prison authorities on 17 February 2017, but permission to access its contents was not sought until 4 May 2017 and they were not obtained until 1 June 2017. That mobile phone had been used to call Abedi 11 times. And when did Abedi carry out his attack? On 22 May 2017, during the precise period the prison authorities were in possession of a phone that a known terrorist had used to call him, but which they had not yet bothered to hack and investigate. The data on the seized illicit phones of jailed terrorists should be obtained ‘more quickly’, the report soberly suggests.

Then there are the revelations about Didsbury Mosque in Manchester, which Abedi and his family attended. At that mosque in October 2014, Abedi shot a ‘hateful look’ at the imam after he gave a sermon condemning groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Libya. In fact, an entire ‘section of the congregation reacted badly to the sermon’. Ramadan Abedi, Salman’s father, criticised the imam on social media. Hashem Abedi and Ismail Abedi – Salman’s brothers, the former of whom was sentenced to 55 years in jail for assisting with the Manchester bombing – signed a petition calling for the imam to be sacked. Why did the mosque not tackle such disturbing behaviour? Because there was a ‘wilful blindness in respect of the activities that occurred at the mosque’, says the report; there was ‘weak leadership’.

Try to get your head around all of this. In the run-up to his slaughter at the arena, Abedi and his brothers were publicly agitating against an imam who was opposed to Islamist violence. Abedi was in regular contact with a convicted terrorist, who phoned him numerous times. He visited that terrorist in jail. He travelled to Libya, where he might have fought with an Islamist group in the civil war there. There existed two significant pieces of intelligence that pointed to his being a potential ‘national security’ threat. He was acting in plain sight. He was being radicalised in plain sight, he was associating with radical Islamists in plain sight. And still his threat level was not upgraded. We live in a society that obsesses over the ‘extremism’ of being a TERF or of feeling uncomfortable with mass immigration, and yet an aspiring mass murderer could freely associate with terrorists and acquire his own deadly materials, and the people whose job it is to keep us safe didn’t notice.

The failures kept on coming. After the wilful blindness of institutions in the months before Abedi’s attack, we then had negligence in the hours before the attack. The first volume of the inquiry’s report explored the security failures at the arena on that bloody night. It found that Abedi was skulking around the arena for an hour-and-a-half before detonating his bomb, carrying his huge rucksack and looking ‘nervous’ and ‘fidgety’, and yet security men did not confront him. And in part they did not confront him because they were ‘fearful of being branded… racist’, the first report notes. That is how deeply entrenched the corrosive creed of identity politics has become – people are reluctant to challenge a nervous man with a bulging rucksack, who had even been seen praying, as to why he was lurking around an event packed with kids and teenagers. One of the parents in attendance did actually wonder if Abedi might be a bomber. He reported his concerns to security guards at 22.14 – 16 minutes before the explosion. But he was ‘fobbed off’. After the wilful blindness of mosques and MI5, we had the identitarian blindness of security guards.

Then there were the failures in the hours after the attack. These were covered in the second volume of the inquiry’s report, which examined the response of the emergency services. The details are almost unbelievable. Greater Manchester Police did not declare the atrocity a major incident until two-and-a-half hours after the blast. Fire crews took more than two hours to attend the scene. ‘Fears over safety’ meant fire services mobilised their resources three miles from the arena. This led to the extraordinary situation where ‘the fire appliances at Manchester Central Fire Station drove away from, not towards, the incident’. For 40 minutes after the attack there was just one paramedic on the scene. Thirty-six of the injured were not evacuated until after midnight, more than 90 minutes after the explosion. The inquiry ruled that it is ‘likely’ that one of the victims – John Atkinson, 28 – would have survived had he received ‘the treatment and care he should have’.

Reading the reports of the Manchester Arena Inquiry provides a truly grim insight into the chilling impact technocracy has had on our society. The erosion of institutional integrity, the elevation of risk-aversion as the great value of our age, the hollowing out of the virtue of bravery even from the emergency services, the obsession with never giving offence, the terror of being branded an ‘Islamophobe’ and possibly facing cancellation as a result – all of these things contributed, at some level, to the evil that befell in Manchester in 2017 and the suffering that followed it. Only Salman and Hashem Abedi are morally responsible for what happened that night. But it would be foolish in the extreme to ignore how the erosion of solidarity and virtue from our society, and their replacement with bureaucracy, back-covering and fear, at least made it easier for the Abedis to do what they did and increased the pain of the victims and their families.

Caroline Curry’s words should give our leaders pause for thought. Surely, we want to live in a world where two teenagers can leave their homes content in the knowledge that they are not on their own. That society cares about them, that the emergency services will attend to them if need be, that their lives really matter, to all of us. Until we do, evil will always have an opportunity to get the upper hand over our way of life.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics UK

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