When a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the Manchester Arena in the United Kingdom, killing concertgoers as they filed out of pop star Ariana Grande’s show, he joined a particularly insidious tradition of attacks on entertainment spaces. The killers who carry out such acts of terrorism aren’t simply launching assaults on Western culture. They’re attempting to destroy the particular freedom that comes from surrendering to art, exploiting the very vulnerability that accompanies that surrender.
The apparent suicide bombing in Manchester was the fourth major such attack in five years. In 2012, James Holmes killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. In 2015, a series of attacks in Paris targeted the Stade de France, where suicide bombers detonated their vests outside the arena during a friendly match between France and Germany’s soccer teams; gunmen and another suicide bomber targeted patrons at restaurants; and three shooters took hostages and carried out a mass shooting at the Bataclan theater during a concert. In 2016, Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in an attack at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub; he seems to have considered Disney World as an alternate target.
Some of these terrorists have explicitly declared that they intended not only to sow terrorism but also to assault Western popular culture itself. The Islamic State’s statement about the 2015 Paris attacks mentioned only one of the sites specifically, celebrating the killings at “the Bataclan Conference Center, where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.” The group’s declaration claiming responsibility for the Manchester bombing described the venue as a “shameless concert arena.”
Attacks on cultural institutions rather than airports or military installations may all be part of the same jihad. Yet targeting cultural spaces has a profoundly different effect.
An airport is a necessary waystation. No one goes there for pleasure, and no one who truly needs to get someplace is going to stop flying simply because the risks have been elevated. The long-term costs of a hijacked airliner or an airport shooting or bombing are tallied in logistics, annoyance and dollars spent on security, or security theater.
By contrast, we choose to go to concerts, to the movies, to sporting arenas and to dinner because of the pleasure they bring us, and the communion we feel in the presence of our community, whether gay men in Orlando or soccer friends in Paris. We cannot fortify every communal space the way we have done with airports unless we are willing to become a radically different society. And so the costs of such attacks are disaggregated to individuals. We all share the burden of these massacres, and weigh them every time we pursue beauty and transcendence along with our fellow citizens.
As many pointed out Monday night, choosing to bomb an Ariana Grande concert meant targeting a young woman and her even younger female fans. Among the dead was an 8-year-old girl. Apparently, no one is young enough to be permitted to experience the joy that can come only from culture without feeling an accompanying jolt of fear — but then, if that murdered child had lived in the Islamic State’s territory, at 9, she would have been old enough to be married off.
Attacks like these aren’t intended merely to kill people who like al fresco dining and the Eagles of Death Metal, or gay men who find their community on the dance floor, or girls young enough to don cat ears. They are an attempt to murder the idea that it’s safe to eat outside on a November evening, or go to any concert, anywhere, or let your child be, for one evening at least, deliriously happy and free in the presence of a pop idol. As Holmes wrote in his notebook, “Targets random. The cruel twists of fate are unkind to the misfortunate.”
These attacks are especially deadly and exceptionally cruel because they take advantage of the surrender that is involved in any aesthetic experience. If you are absorbed in the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, dancing to a rock band or a DJ’s remix, or holding tight to a pink balloon, you aren’t alert to the possibility of danger. The art that transports you is the very thing that makes you vulnerable. The same darkness that liberates you from your everyday life, whether it is mundane or oppressive, gives cover to your killer.
Surrounding movie theaters, concert venues, sporting stadiums and even restaurants with ever more oppressive layers of security might make us all safer. Tightly circumscribing the zones where we can truly feel free and relaxed reminds us just how small those areas have become, and how desperately we must fight to preserve them. Staying home out of fear, and refusing to give in to artistic abandon, is no victory either. We’re all James Holmes’s “misfortunates” now, bracing in the dark of the theater or the club rather than giving ourselves up to it completely.