May 23, 2017
Do you remember your first concert? Mine was the Cars, at an arena in Kansas City, when I was 15. My friend’s father drove us there and stayed in the car the whole time, waiting to drive us home. When we piled back into his Oldsmobile, we must have reeked of weed—we were certainly giggling from the contact high—but he never said anything.
Maybe you remember the first time you dropped your daughter or son off at a concert. Or a dance, or a school trip to an amusement park, or sleepaway camp. You want them to have fun, to be good, to add some small measure of confidence and self-awareness to the adult person they are slowly transforming into. Most of all, you want them to come back to you whole and unharmed.
Any terrorist attack is horrible. That goes without saying. Yet each has its own specificity, a particular time and place and group of people irretrievably gone, ripped from life. 9/11 hit you where you lived—at the office, on an airplane, in the world’s greatest city. The slaughters at Bataclan in Paris and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando shocked us, not just for their brutality but for what they disrupted: music, dancing, joy. These were attacks on human bodies, but also on the souls of those who survived, even those of us who just watched, horrified, as the terror unscrolled on our TVs.
We’re watching it again, shocked and saddened after last night’s explosion in Manchester. This time, the killer—a lone man in a suicide bomb vest—struck at a concert by pop idol Ariana Grande, a tiny singer with an enormous, powerful voice whose fans like to wear pink kitten-eared headbands to match hers. Grande, whose journey from child star to pop artist has sometimes threatened to derail like fellow Disney veteran Britney Spears, has emerged lately as a gracious, multitalented star, adored by tween and teen girls and their mothers, the boys brave enough to admit they love her too, and young gay men.
This is who the bomber decided to kill.
In targeting children, what happened in Manchester gets at the very heart of terrorism. Because what is more terrifying than the thought of sending your child out into the world—into a joyous space created for her—and never seeing her alive again? We try to raise our children to be brave, but what happens to our own courage when we think about the possibility of sudden, irrevocable danger?
To be clear: Parents of Black children have always had to face this fear, and do so for the rest of their children's lives, and in a way that parents of white children can’t completely grasp. And it’s galling, as always, to see the attention paid to white female vulnerability when it’s so often denied to Black women and children. It bears noticing that some voices on the global right have already used Manchester to spew Islamophobia: British columnist Katie Hopkins tweeted, then deleted, a call for a “final solution” to Muslims in England. This kind of manipulation, that seeks to transform mourning into hatred and bigotry, has been resoundingly rejected by many, including Manchester residents who point out the Muslim doctors and cab drivers who worked through the night to help victims and their families, the diverse local residents who opened their homes to those still trying to be reunited with lost loved ones.
In the wake of terrorism, we’re always reminded of both the best and worst in our human community.
We just learned that the youngest victim in Manchester was an 8-year-old girl. Have you ever met an 8-year-old girl? They are powerful and opinionated, they are creative and daring, they just starting to learn that the world will sort them into categories that aren’t fair. This wasn’t just an attack on children; it was an attack on girl culture (which they graciously share with anyone else who wants in—from middle-aged women who wear Hello Kitty backpacks to male Bronies and Power Puff Girls fans). To ignore the misogyny in choosing to bomb this concert is to misunderstand something about the way the world works.
So how do we parent in an age of terror? It’s terrifying to let our children go forward into a world that can be so violent, yet equally damaging to them to keep them from it. The world is a better place when our kids can grow up to be confident, when they don’t fear coming together at concerts, singing and dancing their joy. It takes faith, I guess, and a certain willed rejection of fear. In the wake of Manchester—and Chibok and Utoya and Sandy Hook and Sharpeville—it’s impossible not to fear for their safety.
But parental fear doesn’t keep any child safe; it just creates fearful children. While we mourn the unbearable loss of lives in Manchester, let’s remember to let our children sing, dance, wear pink kitten ears if they like, and send them out into a world that needs their joy and our courage.