From Manchester to Jerusalem: The Limits of Trump’s Terror Narrative

A few hundred yards from the office where I work, 22 people were murdered on Monday night by a suicide bomber. A further 64 people were injured, many of them seriously. Among the dead were children and teenagers, and their mums and dads who’d come to collect them from a pop concert at the Manchester Arena.

The victims came from across the north of England. It was the worst terrorist attack in the UK for 12 years and the concert had been deliberately chosen to gain international attention and kill as many young people, particularly girls, as possible. Colleagues from my office and their children were among the injured and the dead.

The suicide bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi ,was born and brought up in Manchester, his family had fled the Gaddafi regime in Libya in the 1990s and somehow he had become ‘radicalised’ into a destructive perversion of Islam that made him think murdering children was worthy of God’s blessing.

On Tuesday, on advice from my bosses, I worked from home. The area around our office was a ‘security zone’ in lock down. The city’s second biggest railway station, Victoria, was closed. Meanwhile, the body parts of those killed remained at the scene of the crime.

At home it was hard to concentrate on much. The news was about nothing but the bombing, and quite rightly the General Election campaign was suspended. Checking in with my work team it was clear how shaken and upset many of us were. The horror of indiscriminate terror was suddenly a part of our lives. We all knew the Manchester Arena. We knew people who were there the night before. There were friends of friends who were missing.

The narrative of terror

All around the world that day there was reaction to what had taken place. But it was Donald Trump, speaking in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, who was determined to co-opt Manchester into his new narrative of terror.

“You’ve seen just a horrible thing going on…. Horrific, horrific injuries. Terrible.  Dozens of innocent people, beautiful young children savagely murdered in this heinous attack upon humanity.  I repeat again that we must drive out the terrorists and the extremists from our midst, obliterate this evil ideology, and protect and defend our citizens and people of the world. “

There was nothing wrong in Trump offering his condolences and sympathy. That was entirely appropriate. The attack in Manchester was a wicked, senseless crime.

What made me uncomfortable was the way Trump used terrorism to avoid confronting the complicated, compromised and messy reality in which we live, especially in the Middle East.

For Trump, in all the speeches he made this week in the region, terror appeared to be the only cause of the problem, and its defeat would be sure to bring peace.

If only it were true.

Trump’s narrative lacked understanding, substance and integrity. And that went for terror in Manchester as well as the Middle East.

Good and Evil

The President had already set up his thesis in his speech to the Arab/US Summit in Riyadh last Sunday.

“This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between Good and Evil.”

That kind of language is comforting. It means we don’t have to think too hard. We are good. They are evil. End of story.

The solution, in Trump’s worldview, is to defeat the terrorists and promote tolerance. And I’m all for that. But Trump’s vision of tolerance is a place that is devoid of history and politics and lived experience.

“For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again—and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope.”

So according to Trump, everything was fine until we lost our capacity for tolerance. Today’s terror atrocities have nothing to do with the last 100 years of international power politics, or oil resources, or arms deals or any of that messy and confusing stuff that it’s too hard to get your head round.

In Riyadh it looked like we could ditch political diplomacy and international law and just focus on interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“If these three faiths can join together in cooperation, then peace in this world is possible – including peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

I’m sorry, but this really isn’t the problem.

The front line of civilisation

When Trump arrived at Tel Aviv airport on Monday to kick start his new Israel-Palestine peace initiative, he was greeted by Benjamin Netanyahu who was more than happy to endorse the new terror narrative.

On the runway at Ben Gurion, Bibi described the State of Israel as “manning the front lines of civilisation” for 69 years against the “forces of barbarism”. So that’s what’s been going on! Stupid of me to think there was more to it.

The following day, Tuesday, as I sat at my kitchen table switching my iPad between the news from Manchester and the speeches coming out of Jerusalem, it became obvious that condemnation of terrorism will, on its own, never achieve peace, let alone justice, whether in Israel-Palestine or Manchester.

From Trump neither the word ‘Occupation’ nor ‘Settlements’ passed his lips that morning. International law is clearly of no concern either. And you can chuck away all those United Nations Security Council resolutions from the last 70 years. They mean nothing.

But at least there was some honesty in the room that day. Trump didn’t even pretend that his America will be an ‘honest broker’ in this round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The talk at the Israel Museum was all of unbreakable bonds, shared values, and the beacon of tolerance and democracy Israel has always been. And as with his trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump likes to express his love through arms sales.

“America’s security partnership with Israel is stronger than ever. Under my administration, you see the difference — big, big beautiful difference (laughter and applause)”

The real dynamics

The only Arab leader on show this week not singing from the three Abrahamic faiths’ hymnal was Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President. Abbas also condemned the Manchester suicide bombing but he was determined to point out the real dynamics of the conflict while Trump stood beside him in Bethlehem earlier on Tuesday morning.

“…the conflict is not between religions, for respecting religions and prophets is an integral part of our religion and faith….Our fundamental problem is with the occupation and settlements, and failure of Israel to recognize the state of Palestine in the same way we recognize it, which undermines the realization of the two-state solution.  The problem is not between us and Judaism. It’s between us and occupation.”

Before his trip to the Middle-East I was worried that Trump might think Israel-Palestine was just a real estate issue in need of a good real estate negotiator. But I was wrong. Trump’s analysis turns out to be even more desperately inadequate than I’d feared.

Nothing will come of this peace initiative, at least not for the Palestinians. In any case, Abbas no longer has legitimacy in the eyes of his own people (he’s in year 12 of a four year term of office after all). And Netanyahu can’t agree to a single compromise on Settlements (and certainly not Jerusalem) without his right wing coalition imploding.

But all this is just a distraction from the fundamental flaw in a quarter century of ‘peace process’. Why on earth do the democracies of the West think it right and proper that an occupied people must be left to negotiate their own freedom with their occupier? But this is what happens when you think terrorism is the be all and end all of the conflict.

There was a final ‘Kumbaya moment’ before Trump said farewell to Israel.

“Let us dream of a future where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children can grow up together and live together in trust, harmony, tolerance, and respect. “

I want that too. But you don’t get there without the truth. You don’t get there by ignoring history, politics and religion and how they combine either to strengthen or to destroy communities.

A lesson from Manchester

This week, Israel can learn something about terrorism from the people of Manchester.

In Manchester we discovered that, as one of the city’s favourite bands, The Smiths, sang 30 years ago: “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together”. Actually, it turned out to be the bomb, a lot of shared grief and a great deal of love that brought the city together.

Manchester, in the coming days and months, will have to face into UK foreign policy; Middle-East politics; decades of history; and how religion mixed with prejudice and nationalism can lead to atrocity. If the last few days are anything to go by, then Mancunions have a reasonable chance of facing into the whole truth.  That’s a great deal more than Trump or Netanyahu appear ready or capable of doing.

About Robert A. H. Cohen