Terror Returns to Englands Home of Music and Marxism

The young pop fans caught up in the suicide bomb in central Manchester weren’t even born the last time the city was hit by a terror attack.

In 1996, the Irish Republican Army targeted the economy more than innocent victims, detonating a truck bomb causing 500 million pounds ($650 million) of damage to businesses. It killed nobody because the perpetrators issued a warning. With the deaths of 22 concertgoers, including children, the northern English city has now been horrifically exposed to terrorism of a wholly more arbitrary kind.

Carl Jones, a computer-systems trainer at the Cornerstone credit union, whose office is less than 200 meters from the attack at the Manchester Arena, said his 13-year-old daughter was worried for a friend who had attended the concert by American singer Ariana Grande.

“She’s been calling all morning but can’t get through,” said Jones, 42. “We’ve tried to reassure her that no news is good news. But the children are all on social media worrying about it. You can’t keep it from them.”

The Smiths in 1984
Photographer: Pete Cronin/Redferns/Getty Images

For the British, Manchester is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and Marxism, though it is better-known these days for popular culture, its two big soccer clubs — United and City — and rock bands The Smiths and Oasis. At the same time, the city and its environs make up the second-largest urban area in a country where intelligence services say the threat of terrorism is now “critical.” Islamic State claimed responsibility for Monday night’s suicide attack.

At least half a dozen armed police were still patrolling Piccadilly railway station Tuesday, with one officer explaining that they’d been drafted in from a region 100 miles away and were equipped with light-weight rifles.

Manchester’s second terminus, the Manchester Arena and Victoria Station, is located beneath the venue. Cordons stretched for hundreds of feet in each direction, and as far as the Arndale Centre to the south. The Arndale shopping mall, which was the epicenter of the IRA bomb, was evacuated for two hours Tuesday following an alert over a possible follow-up attack. Some people ran out screaming.

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“We’re not going to be defeated,” Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told reporters. He said the 1996 attack showed how the city, which has a wider population of about 2.7 million, pulls together and that’s been repeated. “The idea that people throw their doors open or make their cars available, it tells you everything about the people of Greater Manchester.”

Jeremy Lucas, an IT technician at the Co-operative Group, which was founded in Manchester in the 1840s and has a new headquarters building a short distance from the bomb site, said he left work late on Monday and drove past the venue. He saw “dozens of young girls jumping out of cars” to enter the Arena. “They looked excited, happy,” he recalled.

Manchester grew rapidly as a city in the 1800s because of the textile industry, mainly the manufacture and sale of cotton. It was the powerhouse of Victorian Britain’s world-dominating economy, and the city had the first modern canals and first inter-city railway. By the middle of the century, Friedrich Engels, a rebel son of a factory owner, was working on the Communist Manifesto with his friend Karl Marx at a local library to alleviate the poverty of workers.

Like so many other northern cities, Manchester’s fortunes faded following World War II with the gradual decline of industry and empire. The Manchester Arena, together with the rebuilt Arndale Centre, are both symbolic of the transformation of Manchester into a modern, vibrant city following those years of urban decay and economic stagnation.

The Arena opened in 1995 as part of a failed bid to host the 2000 Olympics. A year later, the 1.5-ton IRA bomb outside the Arndale complex devastated a swathe of central Manchester. It still ranks as the biggest explosion in Britain since the war.

Sufficient warning was provided to allow the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, so that while more than 200 people were injured, no lives were lost.

Emergency workers guide an injured person across a rubble strewn street in central Manchester, England, on June 15, 1996.
Photographer: Howard Barlow/AP Images

The reconstruction project changed the face of Manchester, with grim 1960s edifices giving way to bold new buildings, wide boulevards, parks and pedestrianized zones and an 80 million-pound Marks & Spencer Group Plc branch.

Mancunians were quick to draw parallels between the blasts 21 years apart, though most said that the attack on a pop concert attended by thousands of young people would be more difficult for the city to come to terms with.

“It’s very close to the Arndale Centre and the IRA bomb there, which is still a big thing for lots of people around here,” said Jones. He was told he could stay home from work following the attack, but chose to go in to work. “It’s not about making a statement, but I checked if I could get into the office and then headed in,” he said.

“The deaths have been shocking, but it felt like the right thing to do.”

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