Not torn apart
I’m not sure the universe has room for another opinion column written about the barbaric terror attack in Manchester earlier this week. I’m certain it doesn’t need that column to be written on a Silicon Valley technology news site.
After all, there are only so many new ways one can condemn the unspeakable monster who detonated a rucksack bomb in a crowd of children and young adults; so many original methods of expressing sympathy and solidarity with the victims and the people of Manchester. And then there’s the fact that, of course, terrorists want nothing more than for people to write and talk about them.
What I can do – for good or ill – is offer an observation on the way atrocities like the Manchester bomb are covered in the media today. Specifically, how they’re still covered in the traditional media, away from Twitter, Facebook and other social tools.
As regular Pando readers will know, I recently quit social media, and shut down almost all of my other online accounts. For that reason, the Manchester attack was the first such atrocity in maybe a decade where I was limited to following the breaking story the old fashioned (that is, ten years ago) way: Through BREAKING NEWS banners on cable news and the desktop websites of traditional news organizations.
The last time I experienced serious breaking news without Twitter and other social tools was the 7/7 tube bombings. I was staying with a friend in East London on the day those attacks occurred. There was no wifi in the flat, and no meaningful internet connectivity on our clunky featurephones. The first we knew of the unfolding drama was a text from my friend’s boss telling her not to come in to work that day because of some unexplained explosions on the Northern line. The TV news coverage – Sky News – was still calling it an “incident” and not an attack and the major online sources – mostly the websites of major newspapers – had little to nothing on the story.
In those days, I was editing a small satirical news magazine. As the TV anchors began to use the words “attack” and “terrorist,” I figured I should probably head to our office in Victoria. By the time I got there – ten miles on foot, because all the tube stations were closed – the scale of the attack was clear. The fact that it came just a day or so after London won its Olympic bid only served to heighten the shock.
And so I spent the rest of the day holed up in that office, writing jokes about tube bombers as the same TV clip of dusted and battered survivors walking out of Edgware Road tube station looped endlessly on Sky and BBC News 24.
Oh yes, I wrote jokes about the 7/7 bombings. Specifically I wrote jokes about what the bombings meant for London’s freshly-successful Olympic bid. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, my inbox would ping with another – usually far funnier – contribution from another member of our writing team. This was Britain circa 2005, a time and place when still the only correct response to terrorists was to laugh at them. A time before Twitter and the self-hating left killed the well-targeted “inappropriate” joke once and for all.
Fast forward to this week’s Manchester attack and – sans Twitter, sand Facebook, sans everything - my news consumption had come full circle: Once again I had the TV looping the same clips, once again I had to rely on the websites of major organizations.( There were no jokes this time around, though. As I say, different time.)
As the TV looped and the pages refreshed I couldn’t help but consider what has and hasn’t changed between July 2005 and May 2017. On the Internet, in Britain, and beyond. The two-part answer: Mostly everything but surprisingly little.
For one thing, I’m pleased to report it’s still perfectly possible to follow a tragedy unfolding without access to social media. Absent a control clone, I’m not able to say for absolute certain if I missed anything major by not seeing tweets or Instagrams (at least those that didn’t make it onto CNN or MSNBC) but having now read the day one and two coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere, I’m reasonably confident I did not. (Indeed, if ratings and subscription numbers are anything to go by, those “old” outlets are more than delivering what their readers demand).
The only thing I wasn’t able to do this time around – and I suppose had become accustomed to doing in similar situations these past few years – is respond online in any meaningful way. No tweets of condolence, no changing of avatars or Facebook backgrounds. In 2005, Londoners gathered in pubs and parks across the capital as “thoughts and prayers” poured in via text message to news channels. In 2017, Manchester saw similar IRL shows of public camaraderie and resilience – with similar emotional impact – but the text message tribute has long given way to tweets and status messages. Thousands of miles from the UK, for what it’s worth, I’m locked out of that conversation.
I was, however, able to at least observe that shared grief, and it was beyond heartening to see that Brits – for all we’re told of a bifurcated country post-Brexit – are still resolute to the point of obstinacy that they won’t be cowed by terrorists. That nothing, especially not some dipshit with a backpack, will reverse the country’s march towards true multiculturism. This from a Manchester resident who the BBC identified only as Ian, and the Huffington Post awarded the Superheroic name “Manchester Man”…
“I don’t care who you believe in, where you’re from, this city is for everybody and we all need to rally around today to show support because they want to divide us, don’t they? They want us to turn on our neighbors and it will never happen. Not here.”
His wasn’t an isolated quote, by the way. There was this...
"There are those that want to intimidate and divide us through violence and hatred, but we know that they will always fail.
"Manchester won't allow it, this country won't allow it, none of us will allow it. We stand together today, in grief, but united and resolute."
Lord mayor of Manchester Eddy Newman began the vigil by thanking emergency services, prompting huge applause.
“The people of Manchester will remember the victims forever and we will defy the terrorists by working together to create cohesive, diverse communities that are stronger together,” he said.
And, most perfectly, this and this...
You've got the wrong city if you think hate will tear us apart.— Dave Haslam (@Mr_Dave_Haslam) May 23, 2017
Goosebumps! The amazing moment Manchester crowd joins in with woman singing Oasis - Don't Look Back in Anger after minutes silence pic.twitter.com/Cw4mOq8yde— Josh Halliday (@JoshHalliday) May 25, 2017
Nor is that attitude restricted only to Manchester, or any other part of Britain. I was in London earlier this year, right after the recent Westminster knife attack and was struck – as only someone who has been in America too long can be – by how normal everyone seemed. How unafraid. How contemptful of the notion that Stabby Mcfuckface (as one friend accurately dubbed Khalid Masood) should frighten Brits away from parliament square, or anywhere else besides.
From Hitler to Stabby McFuckface to Salman Abedi, monsters throughout modern history have learned to their dismay that threatening and attacking Brits generally has the opposite effect than intended.
Not that British resilience should be confused with blind patriotism or, worse, nationalism. As those quotes from Manchester Man et al make clear, most Brits have little truck with American-style “love it or leave it” nativism.
Nor is your average Brit an unabashed cheerleader for his or her homeland. In fact, beating up on Blighty is something of a national sport. In 2006, just one year after the 7/7 bombings, Billy Bragg celebrated the Queen’s Golden Jubilee with an album – England, Half English – containing the song “Take Down the Union Jack” and the lyrics…
Britain isn't cool, you know
It's really not that great
It's not a proper country
It doesn't even have a patron saint
Around the same time, a guidebook to British cities topped the UK bestseller lists. Its title: Crap Towns. More recently, Buzzfeed UK has scored huge traffic with slideshows like “44 Reasons Why Britain Is Totally F*cked”
It’s tragic, of course, that it should take an act of barbarism to remind me how wrong Billy Bragg, and the authors of Crap Towns and those Buzzfeed slideshows are. Or rather to remind me that none of them really what they said, except as an expression of tough love.
Granted, things back home have been particularly rocky of late. Brexit was an act of economic and political self harm the wounds of which will likely take decades to heal. And, undeniably, the country desperately needs new leadership, which it certainly won’t get in the upcoming election. Britain in 2017 deserves a leader who can draw lines in the sand when it comes to surveillance, both by the state and tech giants. Who will stand up to Donald Trump, while also rebuilding bridges with Europe (one will greatly expedite the other, of course). Someone not drafted from amongst than the venal, toadying politicians-as-usual who are so close already to the Trump White House that the name of the bomber had already leaked from the West Wing before Manchester police had decided whether to release it to the people of Manchester. All of those things are certainly true.
But as the reaction to the attack proved beyond doubt, Britain in 2017 is still great, and its people are greater still – especially in the face of tragedy. I defy any Brit – resident or ex-pat, Brexiteer or Remainer or recovering tech writer who left London for Silicon Valley a decade ago – to say they’re not measurably more proud of their homeland than they were even a week ago.