Every terrorist attack is an atrocity. But there’s something uniquely cowardly and especially cruel in targeting a venue filled with girls and young women. On Monday night, a reported suicide bomber detonated a device outside Manchester Arena, killing 22 people, many of whom were children. The victims had gathered at the 21,000-seat venue to see the pop musician Ariana Grande, a former Nickelodeon TV star whose fan base predominantly includes preteen and teenage girls. The goal of the attack, therefore, was to kill and maim as many of these women and children as possible.
How can you respond to such an event? Like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, it’s something so horrific in intent and execution that it boggles the mind. And like the 2015 attack claimed by ISIS at the Bataclan theater in Paris and the shooting in Orlando last year, the Manchester bombing was targeting people who were celebrating life itself—the joy of music and the ritual of experiencing it as a community. For a number of children at the Grande concert, it would have been their first live musical event. Images and video of the aftermath of the bombing, depicting teenagers fleeing from the event, reveal some still clutching the pink balloons that Grande’s team had released during the show. The youngest confirmed victim of the attack, Saffie Rose Roussos, was 8 years old.
After attacks like this, there are always calls for the public not to be afraid. This is right, and logical—the purpose of acts of terrorism is to spread fear, so it’s correct that officials entreat citizens to resist that fear and keep going about their daily lives. But the Manchester bombing delivers another message, too. It reminds girls and young women that there will always be people who hate them simply because they were born female. As a performer, Grande is a totem of irrepressible force and burgeoning sexuality. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber wrote last year, her 2016 album Dangerous Woman injects “darker flavors into bubblegum,” with Grande exploring themes of discovering her own power, and her own vulnerability. To target her show is to target thousands of her fans who are considering their own emerging sexuality through the prism of her music.
As the NPR critic Ann Powers wrote on Facebook, attending a concert as a teenage girl is a heady and potent experience. “The best night of your life, girl version:” she wrote, “a ticket in an envelope you’ve marked with glitter glue, putting on too much of the eyeshadow you bought at the drugstore that day, wearing a skirt that’s shorter than your school uniform, telling your mom it’s okay and you’ll meet her right after the show … dancing experimentally, looking at the woman onstage and thinking maybe one day you’ll be sexy and confident like her, realizing that right this moment you are sexy and confident like her.” This is the essence of what so many girls in Manchester Arena were feeling, before some of them were murdered.
Many will point out that this was a terrorist attack, and terrorist attacks target everyone, regardless of gender, or age, or iTunes playlists. There were plenty of men at the concert, too, including a 64-year-old grandfather who was struck in the face by broken glass as he waited to collect his granddaughter. And until more information is released about the attacker, we can only speculate about his motives, although ISIS has been swift to claim responsibility. But the venue he chose to target speaks volumes. The impulse to hate and fear women who are celebrating their freedom—their freedom to love, their freedom to show off their bodies, their freedom to feel joy, together—is older than ISIS, older than pop concerts, older than music itself.