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Robust debate, not unanimity, is the only riposte to this evil in a democracy

Rafael Behr

There is a scale of atrocity that tests the limits of human imagination. Just as we cannot construct a mental picture of very large numbers, some orders of grief are unavailable to proper comprehension. So it is with the Manchester bombing – its precise vindictiveness, indiscriminate and targeted at innocence and joy. To look at photographs of the young victims alongside the knowledge of what happened on Monday night is physically intolerable, like staring into the sun.
Terrorism challenges the imagination in another, darker way. Salman Abedi, the 22-year-old killer, was not a senseless robot of destruction. He had a mind. He had an interior realm of ambition and fantasy. It is not somewhere any reasonable person would want to go, but can it be ignored? That interior realm is a precursor chemical in the crime. Security services will need to investigate how the bomber acquired explosives – but also how he ended up wanting them.

To consider a terrorist’s motives can feel like a misuse of empathy. When grief is raw, any effort spent understanding the killer looks disrespectful to the victims: Abedi deserves only contempt and oblivion. There is also the hazard of moral relativism. A well-trodden analytical approach follows the twisted trail of jihadi logic back to political grievance, Middle Eastern wars and blaming the west. Too often that method prioritises ineffectual academic fiddling at the roots of terrorism, when the pressing task is cutting the monstrosity down.

An alternative is to write off Abedi’s mind as a roiling pot of insanity, inaccessible to rational inquiry. He was a deranged, cowardly loser, mentally uninteresting. That view appeals because it is antithetical to the terrorists’ own self-image as heroic soldiers in a holy war. We don’t want to indulge their grotesque delusion, but are in danger of doing so if we treat senseless butchery as if it were a decipherable political statement.

But there is a problem with the psycho hypothesis: the condition of being socially and morally deficient is not communicable in the way that radical jihadi doctrine appears to be. Abedi’s ideology came from persuasion, not some mysterious affliction. His route to the Manchester Arena will have unique elements, but it will probably also fit a pattern.

We know little. He was born a Mancunian of Libyan descent. His upbringing was devout, but that is a weak marker of potential radicalisation. There is evidence to suggest that Muslims with shallow knowledge of their faith make better targets for extremist recruitment. Some are new converts. The idea that Islam itself builds theological conveyors that send young people towards terrorism is wrong and dangerous. Casting the whole religion as an apologia for mass murder is one of the most pernicious ideas currently breeding in the fetid pools of European and US nationalism.

These debates are familiar from previous attacks. The whole structure of the argument is familiar to moral philosophers who have grappled with it since long before the modern eruption of Islamic militancy. Do we treat evil as an autonomous force in the world – an irreducible phenomenon that needs no further explanation? Or do we deconstruct evil into its mundane components, into a composite of ordinary human choices – what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called its shocking “banality”?
a response. The first stages are straightforward. Society mourns while the state acts briskly to contain the threat of another attack. The public is urged to be vigilant. A shocked country craves cultural solidarity and political unity. The general election campaign has to be suspended.

But the election exists whether we admit it or not. Theresa May cannot deactivate her status as a party leader seeking re-appointment when addressing the nation as prime minister. In every headquarters, the consequences of this week’s events for June’s ballot will be the subject of whispered conversations that would look callous in transcription. That is how it was during the EU referendum campaign in the days after Jo Cox’s assassination. Political performance was suspended; political calculation was only subdued.

It is not pretty, but this is how politics works. And for all its ugly habits, our politics should continue to work – and be seen to work. Not only is it unavoidable in response to a terrorist attack, it is essential.

The challenge of responding to evil is not just an exercise for philosophers. It creates policy dilemmas. Terrorism provokes big questions about the balance between collective security and individual liberty. The state needs powers of surveillance and detention, while citizens’ rights and privacies need protection. Incitements to hatred clash with entitlements to free expression.
There are no perfect reconciliations between rival views on these issues. Just as there is no one model that explains the terrorist’s motive, there is no single template that enables a society to condemn, punish, prevent and understand terrorism all at the same time. There is no elegant solution to the paradoxes of tolerant societies harbouring enemies of tolerance, and the defence of freedom sometimes demanding illiberal measures. It is because no one person can get it right that we have rival parties in politics lobbying for different positions, placing the emphasis different ways.
We put our faith not in a specific leader to give us the answers but in the democratic process to muddle its way to a compromise. Our politicians might not always behave in ways that dignify and enrich that system, but at times of national trauma and emergency they tend to step up. They have done so this week with displays of composure and compassion across party lines.

The challenge is to retain that civility in a resumed election campaign. It is right that there was a pause for reflection and unity. But it is also vital that the competition between different ideas is pursued with unbowed vigour. Unity does not mean unanimity. We can unite around the idea of managing our divisions civilly, peacefully. Politics must not be treated as a distraction from the defence against terrorism. It is our defence against terrorism.