Live music and the shadow of terror

We are still learning of the tragic details of Sunday’s mass-shooting in Las Vegas. It marks the latest in a horrific string of attacks on concerts and music festivals in all-too recent memory.

The link between Islamic extremism and live music is real. It may be an indirect link, each wildly far-removed from what the other represents, but recent incidents must force us to examine that link nonetheless.

The events of 22 May, which saw Salman Abedi detonate a suicide bomb in the foyer of the Manchester Arena and kill 22 while injuring 116, sent shockwaves throughout the world. The indiscriminate targeting of children brought the UK to its knees and the country’s terror threat to ‘critical’. It was the deadliest attack in the UK for a decade.

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Ariana Grande’s defiant ‘One Love Manchester’ benefit concert. Credit: Manchester Evening News

The atrocity came eighteen months on from the Paris terror attacks, the most deadly of which was at an Eagles Of Death Metal concert. 89 of the 130 victims of 13 November 2015 were shot by gunmen at the Bataclan Theatre. The attacks have been called ‘Paris’s 9/11’ and to many will feel far fresher in the memory than nearly two years ago.

While these attacks felt closer to home, both literally and figuratively, between them came the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016. With 49 killed, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in American history, and the worst terror attack in the US since 9/11. It has been surpassed by last night’s Las Vegas shooting.

The highlighting of these particular attacks is in no way intended to diminish the horrific impact caused by the many other recent acts of terrorism. The backdrop of the three London attacks that took place this summer significantly alters the place of the Manchester bombing within the UK picture, for example. What is important is their occurrence in a live music setting, and the subsequent scale of impact.

It is fair to say that in most countries, the most consistent and concentrated gatherings of people are to be found in one of two settings.

The first is sporting events, which have infrequently fallen victim of deadly terror in recent years. The only deadly terror attacks on sporting events this decade were the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, which killed three, and the attempted suicide bombings that were part of the Paris attacks in November 2015. Only one bystander was killed outside the Stade De France.

The second setting is that of live music – chiefly concerts and nightclubs. The previously mentioned recent incidents were the most high-profile, but they are by no means the extent of the acts of terrorism live music has seen recently. The Istanbul nightclub shooting on New Years Day of this year killed 29; a lone shooter killed five at BPM Festival in Mexico later that month; and the suicide bombing at Ansbach Open Air Festival, Germany, killed twelve in July 2016.

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People outside the Bataclan Theatre in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Credit: Daily Mirror

The reason for the gulf in frequency and deadliness of terror attacks between these two settings is not immediately clear. In the case of a target such as the Stade de France, the vast scale of the occasion entailed that security was appropriately extensive. Similar measures are to be found at the most high-profile sporting events. But where is the distinction between, say, the Bataclan massacre and the Boston bombing?

The grim answer may lie in those dimly lit rooms we so often find ourselves in at weekends, senses dulled by the thump of over-produced beats or the thrill of screaming along to our favourite songs. Metaphorically escaping from the outside world, while potentially physically trapped. Trapped by bottleneck exits, venues rammed to profit-maximising capacity and bare-bones security measures. It is an unlikely coincidence that the deadliest of these recent attacks occurred under cover of darkness.

A second factor may lie in the surprise aspect of targeting the relatively small-scale. Ten times as many people were at the Manchester Arena on 22 May than the Bataclan in November 2016, but the latter was four times as deadly. The 1,500 capacity, 19th century Parisian theatre allowed the gunmen to induce panic on account of the close-quarters nature of the venue, and the basic security that is typical of a concert of that scale. At the cavernous, modern Manchester Arena, bomber Abedi knew that he stood next to no chance of accessing the main concert hall due to the extensive security required of such a high-profile concert. Given the possibility, he would surely have opted to cause even more carnage.

The nature of live music venues and clubs as impractical and potentially dangerous is not a new or ground-breaking observation. Nor is it likely to change any time soon. But if the global terror threat continues, and there is nothing at this moment to suggest that it won’t, the public, policy-makers and security officials should re-examine the obvious. Solutions are far from obvious. Every nightclub in the country cannot be shut down, nor can every gig employ airport-style security checks. Awareness and sheer grim expectancy may be the most valuable defences available at this point.

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