At approximately 10:30 PM, just moments after Ariana Grande had finished singing her Dangerous Woman encore at Manchester Arena, a far more dangerous reprise followed in the form of a terrorist attack wherein a bomb was detonated killing 22 ‘people’ and injuring 59. Sadly, the anonymous term ‘people’ in this case meant children and preteens since ‘pink-balloon holding, candy-bag toting’ kids constitute most of Grande’s audience. Grande who was still on the opening leg of a world tour that had begun in Phoenix, had just finished singing her final chorus of the evening – a chorus that begins with the now remarkably haunting words, “Nothing to prove and I’m bulletproof” – before members of her audience who did not have the advantage of being bulletproof were met head-on with an explosive device, a device which security forces are now aware had been attached to a suicide bomber.
Though Grande’s last sung words were “I live for danger,” few could have dreamt that an innocuous pop hyperbole would be taking such a gut-wrenchingly sharp turn towards reality just as the many thousands of preteens and teens were finally on their way home. But that’s precisely when the bomb went off in the outer foyer area of the arena, leaving carnage in its wake. By 10:33, as hundreds stampeded towards the exit and others staggered towards the nearest solid objects in utter disorientation, police records confirm that the first reports had already come in. By then, of course, there were many who lay groaning and calling for help in a thick bed of dust and still many others who lay motionless, some of whom would never be calling for their parents or loved ones again. While emergency and anti-terrorist units were dispatched forthwith, local paramedics on the scene quickly did what they could. Nevertheless, the damage had been done – both to those who were mortally wounded and injured as well as to those who, though physically intact, had been profoundly scarred on an emotional level.
“She’s just. She’s fine,” sighed Mase, a friend and former colleague of mine. As a single parent; Mason (Mase to his friends) had been at the concert with his 13-year-old daughter on the fateful night of the attack. He was clearly distraught as he called me early the following dawn. “Total hell, but nothing happened to her, thank – I just put her to sleep” he continued. “I just put her to sleep a few minutes ago” he repeated more to himself than to me – as though reiterating the fact that she was asleep would keep her safe. “Havoc,” Mase said while fidgeting with the volume button on his mobile phone, “Total and complete horror.”
“I can’t describe it,” Mase started up more attentively; “Or I can but it wasn’t England. Not the England I grew up in. Fleeing, the whole lot… some trotting by, some in a mad dash, a mass of teens, kids, and adults bobbing and weaving between them, some moving with urgency, some almost strolling, each one yelling a different name, each yelling the name of a loved one. Everyone trying to get somewhere and me trying to get back inside… Not just me but lots of parents – it was pure parents calling out different names at the same time. And on and on that constant flow of kids… Kids brushing up against me on their way out. Teenage girls, boys. The dibble (police) here and there. Sometimes I heard ‘dad,’ ‘mom,’ sometimes just this large open mouth about to cry but unable – like the poor little one had forgotten how. And the scriking (Manchester slang for screaming and yelling). What I first thought were noises coming from children turned out to belong to adults. It was hard to tell what noise belonged to whom, what sound was what and even harder to tell if someone was moaning from a physical injury.”
After adjusting the telephone, Mase continued, “Luckily, most kids I saw were doing fine… Physically. I mean, not injured – not seriously anyhow. Not, you know…”
There was a sudden distance in Mase’s voice, “Some were weirdly calm – the children. Sedate almost. As though they were sleepwalking, gently floating towards the exits. I recall one little blond girl with torn pants. Yeah her pants had been ripped but no blood. Blood I don’t remember. Maybe a tiny bit. Insignificant, I mean compared to… The more serious ones must have been further back.”
Mase proceeded cautiously, “So I’m scanning through this sea of faces, just this massive multitude, and suddenly this group of kids file passed. I mean, like a school of them. Like fish. This bubble of kids zig zagging through the crowd with no obvious leader but they’re like together and it’s the oddest looking thing. Anyway, we (Mase and his daughter Miri) were looking for Miri’s friend. Amelia. You remember Steve. Right, well Amelia is his daughter. So I’m thinking thank god Miri is here, just thank God. Thank God my baby is here with me. At the same time, I’m thinking ‘Amelia.’ And that I’m responsible and this can’t fucking be happening. So I’m standing there with Miri just looking desperately for Amelia. Anyway, it turns out she was already with us. Not all along but Miri must have spotted her way earlier on. I mean, we got separated and somehow Miri had found her. Amelia must have vanished for a short while while we were moving together. I don’t know.”
There was a pause. “The blank expressions,” he said without warning.
“It was, my God. Tiny little things with such resigned looks,” Mase sighed. “And each of them was desperately holding on to something. Adults darted between them looking for their own. But these kids – they just kept moving forward like some slow wave. One had an empty plastic cup, other’s glow-sticks, maybe ticket stubs, this one boy looking like a pretty little girl was clutching some used napkin or tissue like his mom had once told him not to litter and he was saving it for her. Bobbins (garbage) – Bobbins in motion attached to kids. It was as if these discarded objects were all that remained of their world. Older teens ran by but the young ones just kept at their steady (pace), bumping into legs here and there and then swinging back to the center like magnets on the go but always calm. And that staring… Staring with no particular point of focus.”
“One little girl, about 7,” Mase paused, “she had this distinct look, this intense furrowed look, the look of someone concentrating on bigger questions – it was the look of my grandad pasted on a 7-year-old face. And that’s when we found her. Amelia. Or, actually, Miri found her. I was still scanning the room when I noticed Miri was already holding her firmly by the hand.” There was a dead silence and I couldn’t tell whether Mase was too choked up to continue or whether the phone had gone dead. I was about to say his name, when I heard a tap turn on. “Water,” he said by way of explanation, before swallowing. “Thirsty,” he clarified.
After a few more audible gulps, an oddly fragmented exhale ensued – one that convinced me that rather than making Mase feel better, the water he drank had replenished his tears.
“Miri. You understand,” he finally uttered.
Then as if in confession, “I was holding her and then not.”
Giving way to an odd grunt that transitioned into a murmur, Mase began to whisper, “I don’t know how much time elapsed before I found her again.”
Then more audibly, “Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m saying I have no idea how much time had passed since I last felt the weight of my daughter’s fingers pulling on my pants pockets. I don’t know how long I stood there thinking things before I realized she wasn’t there.”
With the relief of a guilt-ridden criminal who’d confessed, Mase began giving his official statement, “I was looking. Walking, searching, browsing, yeah, a strange type of browsing – a bit like gawking at a collective nightmare. It had that voyeuristic element. Like taking one last look at the thing that nearly took your life.” Though there was something almost biblical to the image, something reminiscent of Lot’s wife looking back at Sodom before being turned into salt, Mase managed to deliver the comment less with poetic fascination than self-disgust.
“Observing during a time of crisis… Something vile about it” pausing just long enough to hear his own words but not long enough to falter as he felt he had in life, Mase trekked on. “I ran down the hall, immediately running back to where I’d been because I was afraid Miri could return and if she saw I wasn’t there, disappear again. For all I knew, she might have come and gone already.”
Mase was counting, “I took a half minute to get down the hall, I estimated and then fifteen to get back. Maybe it was 2 minutes. I honestly don’t know. I was distracted. Distracted at the worst possible moment. I know, at one point, I ended up back in the empty auditorium where we had seen the show. Filled with chairs, it was an odd looking like an overgrown high school auditorium. And there were dozens and dozens of abandoned pink balloons. Balloons everywhere. Like the kids had known that there would be no room for balloons where they were headed.”
“Look, I know this sounds stupid,” Mase qualified, “but the fact is any minor difference in my actions that night, any twenty second deviation, any change in the unfolding of that evening’s events and it all could have ended very differently. The amount of time it took me to find Miri’s program, how much Miri insisted I look for it, the initial direction we walked in when we left – only because the woman on the other side of us walked too slowly and we decided it was faster to go the longer way around – how quickly the line of departing people was moving, if we left our coats somewhere, which toilet Miri stopped in front of telling me she had to go, how long it took me to convince Miri that she’d be better off going to the toilet at home.”
With mathematical precision, Mase continued: “Somewhere between the time we left the main hall and the time we got to the end of the corridor, a bomb had been detonated. It went off in a room parallel our own – a space we could just as easily have been in. We heard it. Felt the rumbling. We stopped. All of us. Maybe 150 people like a single animal. Those in front of me and those behind. Everyone, everything stopped. Everyone anywhere within a given radius had probably stopped the same way – except those at the source of the sound. No one spoke or moved. It was an oddly fixed moment –one I’d never experienced.”
“By the time the moment was over, I was no longer in the same place, no longer with the same people,” Mase’s comment made me shudder though I didn’t know why.
“Without recalling how I got to where I was, I’d gone from that frozen hallway to just slowing down from a run. I noticed I was running because I was winded, my legs heavy and my shoulders hurting. I didn’t even realize it but I had lifted my daughter and been running with her in my arms – she was pressed against my chest the entire time”, Mase explained. “Still I couldn’t recall having lifted her or even when I left the hallway or when I started running. All I knew is just a few moments earlier I was standing in a silent motionless crowd and the next moment was now, many rooms away, clear on the other side of the Arena.”
If sounds over the phone were anything to go by, Mase who had been pacing now sank into a comfortable leather sofa, giving way to an odd sigh. “You know, I’ll never forget that sound, I don’t mean the explosion. But after – that sound that changed everything. We heard it under us, behind us, in front of us, on all sides of us. The thick directionless almost mechanical sound when thousands of human voices give off a loud horrified cry. It ate the air, dried our mouths. The screams. The panic. And without being aware of when it happened, I suddenly realized my body had been in motion without me. I had been shot out from some big bang, spat out, thrown, me and Miri – fragments in a storm, small particles in mayhem.”
Instead of pondering the horrific fate that both he and his daughter had barely averted, my friend’s tone abruptly changed. Mase had reached a decision.
Briefly pausing, he took a deep breath and then, slowly exhaled: “You do know they all deserve to die.“
Though I sensed that Mase had been drinking more than water, I felt he was finally giving way to a response in keeping with his recent ordeal. Like a man who had come to a painful but necessary conclusion, he repeated, “They (terrorists) deserve to die. They really really do. They deserve to except the problem is they’re all willing and wanting to as well.”
Then with sudden gravitas, Mase added: “Before I start hating every one of their kiddies as much as they hate ours, I honestly think it’s their minging civilization that need bloody well perish – the whole damn pajama-party-for-misogynists ideology and its like. If our children and their children are to live, their ‘anging scimitar-rattling vision of the world must die once and for all. Yeah, well, I said what I had to say on the subject.”
Mase’s voice buckled under the weight of his statement. He was broken. He was spent. As with many survivors who had left deadly situations seemingly unscathed, Mase was saddled with odd bits of unwarranted guilt and the recurring notion that had not luck been in his favor, he could have ended up losing his beloved daughter.
Before saying our farewells to one another, I explained to Mase that his play-by-play depiction of the events could prove invaluable to many. He gave his consent to having me disclose the information on the condition of anonymity, a very reasonable request given the life-threatening ordeal that, just a few hours earlier, hung over both his own and his daughter’s head.
Moments after hanging up, Mase’s final comment came back to me. Despite being in a volatile state, Mase had stumbled on a very genuine conundrum – one that was impossible to write off as being no more than the words of a fretful father. In short, ‘How does one stop a group of zealots who view their own death as a one-way-ticket to Jannah (heaven in Muslim tradition)?’ Is there even theoretically a way to coexist with Medieval theocracies that feel it is their duty to spread an anachronistic ideology – one whose very premise praises forced conversion, the quashing of the infidel and the punishment of the heretic?
Advocating non-intervention when it came to theocratic regimes whose very mission it was to intervene was tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. It meant pretending that the premise of their ethos which was based on ‘actively enlightening the world’ was the same as our own ethos which was everyone having a right to chose what they believe in. What would even make us think for a moment that if we didn’t bother their way of life, they wouldn’t be bothering ours? Could one simply live side by side with religious fundamentalists from a former century who were armed to the teeth with contemporary technology? It’s not very likely that a Fundamental Christian society led by a Crusade-hungry Pope with an entire modern army at his disposal could live quietly next door to us without wanting to convert us. It’s equally unlikely that Islamic Fundamentalists – whose duty it is to spread their religion by any means – can coexist alongside nations who believe religion is a private matter. In a world that has become ever smaller, it was almost absurd to think that two diametrically opposing world views – representing visions born of entirely different epochs – could peacefully inhabit the same time period.
Having cancelled her gigs till June 7th and having vowed to return for a charity benefit concert in Manchester, Ariana Grande is slowly recovering from the horrific attack that took place during her concert. Her resilience and commitment are a reminder of the road ahead for the many youths and adults who – under the luckiest of circumstances – had left the Arena with only emotional scars. The attack that took place in Manchester is a prescient reminder of the world we live in – one which makes us question just what kind of a future awaits Miri and those like her. Indeed, these are dangerous times especially for the courageous assertive woman being alluded to in Ariana’s own Dangerous Woman song. It is dangerous times for the woman who continues to live in our part of the world and for those that live under the repressive theocratic orders from where such deadly nightmares as this recent attack had sprung. Sadly, despite Ariana’s lyrics, neither she nor her fans nor any other woman, man or child on the planet is bulletproof.