There are images that populate our consciousness. A young Muslim, raised on a working-class Manchester estate, recently returned from Libya, carefully packing a nail bomb that aims to inflict the greatest possible number of casualties.
Twitching torsos of teenage girls wearing kitten ears, who just minutes earlier were dancing. Children screaming for their mothers, and mothers screaming for their children.
Hospitals suddenly packed with dozens of war-zone wounds, and doctors fighting overwhelming infections, and the list of dead rising slowly with each day that passes.
The general election, suspended.
The prime minister solemnly announcing that the threat is now critical, and that soldiers will be deployed to critical sites. The police telling us that the killer had help, and until the network is uncovered, we should expect another attack at any time.
These images of our age — Bataclan, Nice, Rouen, Würzburg, Westminster — have become the icons of a death cult, erupting from nowhere in concert halls and promenades, in Christmas markets and public squares.
And each time, the same sequences: The police storming houses, the neighbors and classmates shaking their heads, the profile that emerges of a sad, alienated loner, but with education, studying IT or management, a kid who never took his Islam seriously until suddenly he got a beard and angry and stopped going to his mosque.
Then the foreign trip — Syria, Iraq, or in this case Libya — and the coming home to destroy everything about it. His name was Salman Abedi; he was 23, Manchester-born, a student of management at Salford University.
But no one cares. No one ever remembers the names of the suicide bombers. Their moment of notoriety cannot extinguish their anonymity.
What people remember is the cold grip of fear. They remember the sobbing and the pain. They remember that moment when iniquity triumphed over innocence.
And if you lost a teenage girl on Monday night, there is nothing, but nothing, that will persuade you that evil is not a true power, and any attempt to say otherwise will be received as a platitude.
And yet, isn’t it remarkable that, time after time, it’s the other stories that we tell?
Manchester arena on Monday night was full of them: the homeless guys who picked out the nails from the girls’ faces, the local residents who opened their doors to stranded teenagers, the queues that formed at blood banks, and the thousand acts of solidarity and kindness that remind a city that its human networks are far stronger and more stable and more enduring than any jihadist ones.
These are the images, said Prime Minister Theresa May, “that embody the spirit of Manchester and the spirit of Britain.”
At the vigil in Albert Square last night to pay tribute to the 22 dead and the 120 wounded, Manchester’s faith leaders banded together to deplore the exploitation of religion and to point to the triumph of humanity.
“This city is greater than the forces aligned against it,” said Manchester’s Anglican bishop, David Walker, alongside rabbis and imams.
That, too, is part of the contemporary choreography after a jihadist attack: We will not be divided along any boundary, whether religious or social or racial.
All this has become so familiar that it’s almost trite, barely worth reporting. But isn’t that, in itself, quite astonishing? We are so used to westerners reacting to appalling violence with stoic patience and outbursts of love that we take it for granted.
More bombs, more love. Tell me something new.
But our reaction to terror hasn’t ceased to matter. It’s just we no longer realize just how remarkable it is.
Because — forgive the brief history lesson — the normal response of human communities threatened by violence down the ages is to respond with violence: If the perpetrators can’t be hunted down and massacred, then usually a proxy will do — someone who speaks the same language or claims the same god.
As the great Catholic thinker René Girard taught us, the traditional human reaction to a threat is the escalation of violence, controlled only by being directed against a scapegoat or scapegoats, and sanctified by primitive religion.
What broke that human pattern was the Cross, which revealed that the scapegoat was innocent and God wholly free of violence. As Girard wrote in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind.”
Ever since God allowed himself to be crucified for mankind, the more violence rages, the more it reveals what it seeks to conceal: The true power is love, and that Satan has been duped, defeated, left spluttering. It cannot last, build, endure.
If you lost a gorgeous, smiling, innocent child in Manchester Arena on Monday night, it’s small comfort, right now, to realize that cosmically speaking it was an act bereft of true power, the sputtering of an extinct idol.
But isn’t it amazing that the injustice done to you wasn’t immediately multiplied in scapegoating, and revenge attacks across the city? Isn’t it extraordinary that people did not fall on one another, but into each other’s arms?
We are so used to hearing of the extinction of Christianity in our secular, happy-go-lucky age that we forget, sometimes, how deeply impregnated it is. Faced with the provocation of the primitive sacred across the western world, our ancient Christian lands have not — despite worrying signs — reverted to paganism.
If there is a reversion in Europe, the jihadist threat is causing, if anything, a new clinging to the ancient freedom brought by the Cross.
It may not be new. But it should be news.
Iniquity triumphed over innocence on Monday night. But not for long. In Manchester’s loving patience and togetherness, the real victor turned out to be the Cross.