Forgive the mildly indulgent personal story to start this piece, but it’s relevant to the tragic events that unfolded in Manchester this week and this article.
I lived in London for the best part of a decade and this covered the infamous 7/7 bombings in 2005 – the most serious ground-based terrorist attack ever to have taken place on British soil. I was fortunate; thanks to my local Clapham South tube station being closed due to an unrelated issue that morning, thus delaying my daily Northern Line commute into central London’s ground zero, I remember feeling that I was extremely fortunate not to be directly involved.
The experience, to a certain extent, helped shape my views on a liberal, inclusive society because of what happened afterwards. Despite the death and destruction, over the next few days the Londoners that I saw or knew all displayed the sort of resilience and togetherness that I’m sure Manchester residents will be experiencing in the coming weeks.
Regardless of background, colour or creed, we’d come through a shared experience and emerged stronger, humbled and thankful. Put bluntly, all of us had avoided being blown up… the terrorists had failed to break us or change us. We felt empowered as a city – not scared or timid.
Looking further back in history, we have an excellent and thoroughly researched example of this phenomenon in London’s experience of World War 2. In the lead up to the Blitz, Churchill issued dire predictions – millions of Londoners would flee, 600,000-plus dead, many more injured – and set up a series of mental hospitals around the capital to handle the inevitable rush of traumatised civilians.
However, after 57 consecutive nights of aerial bombardment involving millions of bombs, none of these warnings had come true. People didn’t flee, the hospitals set aside for mental patients had to be returned to normal use due to lack of use, children played in the streets as air raid sirens sounded and many refused to be evacuated. There were also fewer deaths than expected. London did not crumble and break.
This is detailed extensively in Canadian psychiatrist J T MacCurdy’s observations of London during the Blitz and subsequent writings. After studying London residents during this bombardment, and putting it in a rather matter-of-fact fashion, MacCurdy concluded that being bombed resulted in three categories of people:
1. The people killed by the bomb: The morale of the community depends on the reaction of the survivors, so from that point of view, the killed do not matter. (Although they obviously do matter, but I’m quoting MacCurdy directly here)
2. The Near Misses: the ones that feel the blast and see the destruction… but they survive. It may result in ‘shock’…and a preoccupation with the horrors that have been witnessed.
3. The Remote Misses. These are the people who hear the sirens, the bombs explode, watch the aircraft overhead, but the bombs explode down the street. For them the experience of the bombing is that they survived easily, unlike the Near Miss group. The emotion as a result of the attack…is a feeling of excitement with a flavor of invulnerability.
These are the words of JT MacCurdy and, whilst I understand that they may not come across as being sensitive to those who’ve experienced trauma (particularly recent), he gets his point across.
This is that the vast, vast majority of Manchester, thankfully, falls into the Remote Misses category (just as I did after 7/7) and the human reaction to this challenging experience is one of increased resilience, strength and confidence. There are countless examples of this in the form of reports, diaries, interviews and studies from World War 2 and beyond.
We’ve already seen strong evidence of this from Manchester. The vigil in Albert Square and tribute concert is just the start. A vast majority will emerge stronger and will have their fundamental beliefs in a free, open and liberal society reinforced.
In the words of Malcolm Gladwell, and in direct summary of the phenomena detailed by MacCurdy: “The contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security, promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”
And it is this courage and confidence that I know most Manchester residents will be experiencing right now, just as I and my fellow Londoners did in 2005 and the 1940s.
The terrorists will never win because of this – the more they attack us, the stronger we all become.