The way we grieve major tragedies has altered radically since the Aberfan disaster in 1966, writes Bill Jamieson.
Of the many changes that have overcome public behaviour in recent years, few have been more marked than the national spectacle of private grief. This week witnessed massive displays of mourning to mark the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bomb attack. Gatherings were held across the city and beyond. Huge television screens relayed the emotion-charged commemoration service, public singing and displays of mourning.
On broadcast media there was extensive coverage featuring interviews with grieving families, survivors of the attack, representatives of the emergency services, politicians and civic leaders.
There was every cause for grief, sadness and remembrance. Twenty-two people were killed and hundreds injured when a bomb was detonated at the end of an Ariana Grande concert on 22 May last year: blind carnage amid innocence, slaughter amid carefree enjoyment.
The explosion detonated by suicide bomber Salman Abedi tore through Manchester Arena. The victims included an eight-year-old girl, Saffie Rose Roussos, and many teenagers enjoying a night out. Around 120 other people were injured in the blast.
Shock waves from the attack were felt across the country and tehre were media reports world-wide. Here was a murderous act of utter cynicism and brutality – yet another one after the outrages of Paris, Brussels, Nice and London. The grief felt by families for the loss of sons and daughters who had attended nothing more harmless-seeming than a pop concert is impossible to measure and the suffering that continues to be endured by many of the wounded almost beyond comprehension.
Commemoration there certainly deserved to be. But I cannot be alone in being struck by the public assertion of private grief. For an earlier generation, such grief at loss of life would be an occasion for private dignity and reflective sorrow. Contrast this, for example, with the moving funeral service some 50 years ago for the 144 victims of the Aberfan disaster – 116 of them children. The service itself was just 15 minutes. And the most stirring feature of the newsreels showing the 5,000 people on that Welsh hillside was the silence. While this was no act of terrorist barbarity, anger there certainly was at the human failings and oversights of the National Coal Board. But that anger came later.
Today there are now overwhelming public displays – mass demonstrations of public grieving, broadcast memorial services, the lighting of candles, the release of balloons, displays of toys and ribbons – and a coverage by broadcast media so prolonged and exhaustive it borders on the mawkish. Public display has become everything – the nationalising of private grief into a ghoulish public spectacle.
Buried in the assertions of ‘Manchester Together’ and a ‘City in Unity’ were deep feelings of anger and bewilderment at how such a massacre was able to be perpetrated. How have such murderers come in our midst? What security lessons have we learnt from the long and deadly trail of previous attacks here and across Europe? What have the authorities actually done by way of real positive action as opposed to rhetoric to prevent such repetition?
For many it will have come as reassurance that, according to Andrew Parker, the director-general of MI5, nine terrorist attacks have been prevented in the UK in the past year.
But this is reassuring only up to a point. How is it that these bombing attempts, far from declining, continue to be so numerous? UK Cabinet ministers were told that, while Daesh (Islamic State) had suffered major defeats in Iraq and Syria, this did not mean the threat was over, “rather it is spreading to new areas, including trying to encourage attacks in the UK and elsewhere via propaganda on social media”.
The pace of attack planning had increased significantly this year, and ministers are now putting pressure on social media companies to remove terrorist material.
Seen in this light, the scale and extent of this week’s remembrance may be viewed not only as an expression of national mourning – a wholly natural desire to show empathy and support – but as a demonstration of national impotence, a helplessness in the face of determined enemies, that there is only so much that we can do.
“Terrorism must not change our way of life” is a common refrain. But it already has, and profoundly so. We are now accustomed to seeing armed police officers at airports and railway stations. We have come to accept intense security screening before boarding a plane, even on domestic flights: suitcases and handbags searched, electronic equipment scanned and liquids from lens cleaner to eau de cologne restricted.
In front of government buildings and civic institutions, concrete bollards have been erected and security procedures installed at entry. Our way of life has already been changed and will continue to be so as Islamic extremists continue to pose a threat to public safety.
Little wonder, perhaps, that not only the families of the killed and injured but also the wider public feels the most acute need for reassurance. Terror remembrance has become an almost regular feature of today’s news. Last year there were more terrorism-related deaths in OECD countries than in any year since 1988. That creates, not only a huge number of potential long-term casualties but also, across the wider population, an apprehension and fearfulness over every public event.
According to New York City’s health department, as many as 61,000 people were estimated to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers. And almost half of the survivors of the 2005 London terror attacks reported severe mental health problems.
A year on from the Manchester Arena attack many searching questions need to be asked on claims like Manchester Together and A City United, not least on whether the demonstrations of public grief are being used to suppress anger over failed security. Have they become a substitute for active measures to curb future outrages? We are not “all together”. And more needs to be done in the name of internal defence than perfumed candles, the floating of balloons and lofty speeches with their earnest assertions of unity. Public grievance is no substitute for public safety.