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Mourning Manchester: Forging a New Politics of Grief

We cannot allow the deaths of children to be churned into approval ratings for politicians and arms deals for dictators.

We are all grieving the children lost in the suicide bombing of a concert in Manchester this week.

The global media is remembering these young lives, lost in an unimaginably brutal assault. They have names, faces, personalities, friends, preferences, histories and families. We see their community members weeping for them. We see their loved ones kneeling, planting flowers at the site where their lives were taken.

They are portrayed in their full humanity; the abrupt ending of their lives is a sign of a violence that has no place in our world.

In this moment it might seem callous to point to the simultaneous invisibility, the namelessness and facelessness, of the civilians in Yemen — many of them children as well — whose lives have recently been taken as a product of violence.

It might seem uncouth, in this moment of global grief, to express outrage at seeing the British flag wielded as some twisted symbol of solidarity. To point to its legacy as a symbol of brutal imperialism would somehow undermine its current use: a sign of empathy for innocent lives lost.

Our grief in this moment is expected to outweigh our outrage that Donald Trump, speaking from the apartheid state of Israel, calls the purveyors of this attack, “evil losers,” just days after brokering a gargantuan arms-deal with a US-backed regime with a known history of human rights violations.

We are expected to be too heartbroken in this moment to remind anyone that visual politics determine how we experience grief itself. On September 11, 2001, media networks around the world chose to play and replay the now-iconic footage of “jumpers” leaping out of burning towers to their death. These same media networks obediently followed a government-issued ban on showing flag-draped coffins of deceased soldiers returning from Iraq, simultaneously rendering 9/11 a unique type of tragedy and rendering invisible the brutalities of the illegal invasion of Iraq. In the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks, many people deemed mere mentions of the fact that lives had also been taken by ISIS (also known as Daesh) in Beirut just days before to be disrespectful to the lives lost in France.

Perhaps this is why the standard chorus of “we condemn terror” is sure to emanate from Muslim organizations in the West in the wake of Manchester, as if this were particularly their condemnation to make. No matter how vocally these proclamations are made, they will be drowned out by the much-larger climate of Islamophobic bigotry.

We live in a seemingly unending terror age — a time of many instances of mass violence. We have grieved lives lost in San Bernardino, Orlando and Paris. We have seen journalists beheaded. And we know that, just as many of us learned about the terrible news of Manchester upon waking on Tuesday morning, we will wake up to such bad news again. There is a numbing sense of déjà vu in this seemingly repetitive cycle of terror and death.

Yet this terror age must give rise to a new politics of grief.

A new politics of grief would not allow these deaths to be churned into approval ratings for right-wing politicians.

A new politics of grief would not allow the memory of those lost lives to be used as fuel to line the pockets of arms dealers and dictatorships, or to generate an unquestioning support for intensified militarism.

A new politics of grief would not be used to bludgeon us into silence, nor to put a lid on our critical faculties.

Instead, a politics of grief for this seemingly endless terror age would be one in which we think deeply, contextually and historically about the political conditions that give rise to a brutal attack like the one we saw in Manchester.

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