Well, there are troops on the streets of London. So they say. I haven’t seen any myself, but I’ve seen them on TV. Downing Street of course, 10 special forces, men and women, in camouflage, toting huge machine guns on their chests. I would warrant that’s the way most of the country is seeing them. Five thousand troops apparently, all around public “hotspots”. Houses of Parliament and the Old Bailey central criminal court are closed to the public. Police and troops are working together.
So this is disconcerting. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. The US has a ban on the army being used for internal policing (although the national guard can be). France doesn’t, and the army’s everywhere. The UK is somewhere in between, but there has always been a strong sense that policing should be as light as possible. More honoured in the breach, or The Bill, than the observance, the troops are here, and the election is nowhere, all appearances by leaders, and three solid days of hustings (local candidate debates) cancelled. Cancelled with, one feels, a sense of relief in some quarters, charade debates in the Tory-blue sea. The troops seem so much more real.
Two days after the bombing and the event itself is now being buried in arse-covering, PR and talk of “resilience”. Now, as more information comes out, it’s become clear that the bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, had traveled back and forth to Libya and possibly Syria as recently as a few weeks ago, that his father returned to Libya from Manchester to fight Gaddafi’s forces in the 2011 uprising. Neighbours said that in recent months Salman had become angry and erratic, picking fights with everyone, praying in the street, festooning his bedroom windows with jihadi flags, etc. “I had arguments with him about the bins,” a neighbour said, which is sadly, stupidly funny. What could be more British than an argument about the bins?
But it’s becoming clear that there was a failure of targeted intelligence and surveillance — which most of us accept is now a grim necessity, for a while. Targeted and specific, as opposed to general — but in this case neither, or not enough, apparently. So instead we are having the performance of security, troops on the streets, etc, and, most dispiriting of all, large sections of the news media seeing its role as little more than buttressing public opinion, and snarling at a young man who is now a scorch mark on a concert hall floor.
For those in the media who see their role as nothing other than supporting state action, the Manchester bombing is a toughie. The event is close to degree zero as an event — atrocious, but no record setter, part of no wider attack (yet), the attacker leaving no statements, videos, etc. The network that primed him — if there was one –– has kept quiet, and everything folds back to the act itself. To fill pages and time, news media inject it with a meaning: he hates our freedom/freedom of women/sexualised culture, etc, but it is all added after the fact and underscores the bomber’s success on his own terms, the storm he created, by being the empty eye of it. Protecting state institutions is purely ceremonial, a yearning for violence to be old-fashionedly political again. Any copycat incident will be some screwed-up attack on a traffic warden with a sharpened trowel or something, and any organised follow-up is more likely to be in a matinee of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 than the Royal Courts of Justice.
Awareness of this has prompted a lock-em-all-up mentality in some quarters, but not many. That is less out of deference to civil rights than it is an awareness that intense detention, policing, surveillance simply produces insurgents and terrorists on a grand scale. And of course with all the wall-to-wall resilience stories, there’s no room, even on the BBC, for straightforward political analysis and discussion of the incidents for which such atrocities may be payback — such as the US airstrike on a mosque in Aleppo, which killed 42 people in March. With Trump having relaxed the rules of engagement considerably, the war on our turf may hot up again. “They won’t change us.” They already have as soon as you utter that very sentence.
They won’t change us. Yet there are troops on the streets of a nation where the cops don’t carry guns. And one sees, suddenly, how it would happen if it were otherwise, if the troops were here to stay and the election wasn’t. How easy it feels. How absent any resistance, or even opposition to the process there is. It is a very uneasy feeling, far more than the risk of bombs, waking up in another country not my own, coming through the TV, troops on the streets.