Manchester in perspective

In the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes aim at the scribes and Pharisees and points out some of their failings in blunt language. One of the things he accuses them of (verse 24) is their failure to see things that they should have seen: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

What was the problem? The verse before explains what they had been doing wrong:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

They had some things right. Some of the things that they were concerned about were things that they should, indeed, have been concerned about. They were not very important – but they were still important. And so they took appropriate action. And that was good.

The problem was that there were some things that were much more important – much bigger, much weightier – that they were simply ignoring. In other words, they didn’t have things in their proper perspective. Things that were, in reality, very big didn’t seem big to them. And things that were not so big seemed huge.

Manchester and Syria 

So – how big was last week’s Manchester attack? The answer is that it was big. Twenty-three adults and children, including the attacker, were killed and 116 were injured, some critically. The dead included ten people under 20, the youngest an eight-year-old girl. For the families of the dead and injured, the incident has brought great grief.

Let us take the raw figure of 23 dead. How significant is that figure? If only one person had been killed, would the UK have observed a minute’s silence on the 25th? If not, how many people need to die before a minute’s silence is held? If only child died, would the grief felt by the parents would be less than if their child had been one of 23?

In other words, 23 dead is a lot. Especially if 10 are children. But what about the death of 44 children? What if bombers killed 44 children? And what if the total death toll was much higher than 23? In fact, bombers did kill 44 children last month – in Syria. Air strikes carried out by the US and its coalition partners in Syria killed A total of 225 civilians, including 36 women and 44 children in the period between 23 April to 23 May, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


And these people feel grief as well. They are real people, and have real stories. According to The Intercept,

On April 24, a group of Syrian women bundled themselves and their children into a car and attempted to flee the small town of Tabqa, outside of Raqqa. In recent months the sleepy principality had become the site of raging battles between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed proxy forces, waging a campaign to drive ISIS from the country. Packed into the fleeing car were 11 people, including eight members of the al-Aish family: three women between the ages of 23 and 40, and five children, the youngest one just 6 months old.

The al-Aish family’s flight from a war zone was similar to millions of other desperate journeys made by Syrian civilians over the past six years. But they would not make it to safety. As they fled Tabqa, their car was hit by an airstrike, reportedly carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. All 11 people were killed in the strike, in what local reports described as a “massacre.”

A U.S.-led coalition warplane targeted heavy machine guns at civilians trying to flee the city of Al-Tabaqa, which is witnessing heavy clashes between gunmen,” reported the local anti-ISIS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. The air raid led to “the death of a whole family.” Following the attack, photos of the young children from the al-Aish family circulated widely on social media and local news sites, including pictures of 3-year-old Abdul Salam and 6-month-old Ali.

And yet despite all this grief, the amount of coverage in the British press has been negligible. There has been no minute’s silence. And not much rage against the bombers. Of course, the UK is part of the coalition that is killing these children. And by the way, it isn’t just 255 civilians.

The strike that killed the al-Aish family was just one of an estimated 9,029 strikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria since 2014. The independent monitoring group Airwars estimates that coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq over the past several years have killed between 3,681 and 5,849 civilians, compounding the suffering of people who have already endured years of civil war. In recent months, local media have reported a steady stream of airstrikes that have hit civilian targets, including several particularly egregious strikes on packed schools and mosques.

. . . and Yemen

And then there is Yemen. Mention of the fact that the youngest person killed in Manchester was an eight-year-old girl reminds one of another eight-year-old girl. Nawar Awlaki bled to death after being shot in the neck by American forces. She was one 25 civilians, including 10 children and 6 women killed during an American raid on the village of al Ghayil in the Yakla area of Yemen in January.   It was not the first time residents of the Yakla area had lost family members to a U.S. attack. In December 2013, a drone strike on a wedding convoy killed 12 civilians.

And while we are on the subject of Yemen, according to the United Nations, there had, by January this year, been 10,000 civilian deaths in the two year old civil war.  And a lot of those deaths have been caused by Saudi Arabia, who, with the active support of the American and British governments, have repeatedly bombed hospitals, schools, funerals, and other civilian targets.  (Yes, that is what picture at the top shows: a Saudi raid on the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.)

Twenty-three dead in Manchester is horrible. The bombing was an act of great evil, and has caused real grief. But compared to what has been going on in Syria and Yemen . . . Well, let’s just say that things that are, in reality, very big, don’t seem big to the media in this country. And things that are not so big seem huge.

We should grieve with those who grieve. And particularly with those who are close to us. And I suppose, in some sense, people in Manchester are closer to us than people in Syria or Yemen. But what about those people in Manchester who who lost loved ones last week as a result of disease or accidents? There was no national minute of silence for these deaths. Is that just because the Manchester bombing was newsworthy, and what we grieve over is largely determined by the media?

The fear of terror

Of course, a big part of the effect of the Manchester bombing is that not only did it produce grief and shock; it also caused fear. In the wake of the attack, politicians immediately started talking about what needed to be done to stop such attacks. Again, I think they are getting things out of perspective.

Let’s look at death rates. Let’s start with terrorism.

Since the year 2000, there have been 173 deaths in the UK as a direct result of terrorist acts (excluding the perpetrators).  80 of these are connected with Islamic extremism. That’s 4.7 deaths per year. In the same period, there have been 93 deaths as a result of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. That’s 5.5 per year.

So terrorism-related deaths are running at 10.2 per year.

In the 10 years before that, the 1990’s, terrorism-related deaths were running at 46.2 per year.

In the 1980s, they were running at 78.2 per year.

In the 1970s, they were running at 204.2 per year.

The statistics don’t lie. And they tell us that terrorism in Britain has declined spectacularly. It is not the problem it used to be.

And, as I pointed out, deaths as a result of terrorism are not the only deaths that leave people shocked and grieving. Over the past decade, the number of people dying as a result of road accidents in the UK was running at 2,025 per year. And while that figure is in decline, it still dwarfs the number of people killed in terrorism-related incidents.

And the figure for suicides is even higher. Over the past decade, in the average year, 5,849 people in the UK take their own lives. Sadly, that figure is not in decline.

The Manchester bombing was evil and terrible. But the number of people directly affected was tiny. The number of terrorist incidents and the number of terrorism-related deaths in Britain are in decline. Terrorism is actually a less serious problem than it used to be. But you would never guess that by listening to politicians and the media.

And if it is true that one of the aims of terrorists is to strike fear into people, then it seems that all the attention being given to the Manchester attack is actually doing exactly what terrorists want. I suspect the decision by the government to hold a one minute silence on the 25th should be seen as a victory for Salman Abedi. I fear that under the circumstances, “Blind guides” is actually a remarkably good description of Britain’s political leaders.  

Let’s get things in their proper perspective.


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