Terrorists usually deal out death with ultimatums: Brits out of Ulster! America out of the Arabian Peninsula! But there is no legible political aim behind an attack like the one in Manchester on Monday. Vengeance for what? The answer never comes. Islamist terror plots have been foiled in neutral Ireland and Switzerland in recent years, giving lie to the idea that such plots can be exhaustively explained as a reaction to Western foreign policy.
No, the message of Salman Ramadan Abedi’s attack on young girls at a pop concert is much more chilling. And it is one that is being delivered more frequently. It is the same message of the spectacular 2015 Paris attacks, which targeted restaurants, a soccer match, and another concert hall. The terrorists are telling us that so long as we continue to live our own lives, and pursue leisure at night for no other reason than our own enjoyment, we are in peril of death.
These terrorist acts strike at one of the great monuments of our civilization, one as important to us as the Eiffel Tower or London Bridge: our freedom to choose what we do for its own sake. What could offend a radical more than the fact of humans freely choosing to do something trivial, or merely fun?
To us the attack on soft targets seems like an escalation of hostilities. When Islamists killed people gathered at the symbols of America’s military and financial power, the meaning of their act was plain to all. So too the terrorist’s intent when attacking a nation’s transportation systems and networks is obvious to us. But the images coming out of Manchester are harder for most Westerners to understand. Or at least, it is harder for us to accept the rationale offered by the terrorists in this attack’s aftermath.
Because the killers have convinced themselves that Monday’s Ariana Grande show was not at all trivial, but rather an offense to their god. And the terrorist makes himself righteous by turning himself into the instrument of divine fury. He even imagines that the people who witness such an attack will shut up, too embarrassed to defend the victims. As The Spectator’s Douglas Murray reminds us, in 2004, al-Qaeda’s Jawad Akbar was recorded discussing a plot to bomb a nightclub. No one could claim the potential victims were “innocent,” Akbar said, describing them as “those slags dancing around.”
We know that designing an attack to launch nails through the bodies of pre-teen girls and their parents is a special kind of evil. But seen through the eyes of an uncompromising Islamist, Abedi is the same as the attackers of Charlie Hebdo or the men who killed Father Jacques Hamel, slaying those who insult Islam, putting the infidel to death. To them, the war for the soul of the world is not confined to the battlefields. Every nightclub is an enemy armory. Every ringing of a church bell is an enemy volley. Every man just going about his business, indifferent to Allah, is an enemy foot soldier.
Those stark descriptions may seem to give the killers a kind of austere dignity. And that is why I liked the way President Trump spoke about them: It deflated them. Even though I worry every time the president opens his mouth at a sensitive juncture, he struck a useful note by calling the killers, “evil losers.”
“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name,” Trump said. “I will call them from now on losers because that’s what they are.”
Calling someone a loser may seem like nothing compared to the divine wrath burning in the heart of a jihadi. But Trump has instinctively landed on a truth: Islamist terrorism is motivated by a twisted sense of loss. Why should the West enjoy prosperity and freedom while the nations in the Dar al Islam are governed by brutal and corrupt regimes? Why would God let the decadent infidels send their pop culture and the signs of their wealth and power into the heart of Islamic lands, if not to humiliate Muslims, making them aware of their condition as losers?
And what does a loser, who dwells on his misfortunes and low status, hate most of all? The popular, the wealthy, the heedless, and the free. That is why the terrorist attacks concert-goers and other soft targets. Because their indifference and freedom remind the jihadi of what he is and what we are.