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After Manchester: Struggling for a sense of security amid tragedy

We can’t accept that this happened. We can’t grasp why, either. We don't know when it’s going to happen next.

But we do know it likely will.

This is about the May 22 bombing in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people and injured dozens more as a crowd left an Ariana Grande concert.

But this is also about the Orlando nightclub massacre. The Boston Marathon bombing. The Fort Lauderdale airport shooting. It’s about a slate of extremist attacks by do-it-yourself terrorists that have shaken people in the United States, Europe and beyond.

Ask yourself this: Have you thought twice about going to a concert, sporting event, parade or any other public gathering? Do you know someone who’s choosing the safety of shelter over the exposure of celebration?

Are you trying to figure out how this is happening in our world?

Suspect identified in Manchester concert attack that killed 22

The Manchester tragedy plunged that already unanswerable question to a new level of complexity. Grande’s fan base is predominantly tween and teen girls, which means the people pouring out of her show — and therefore the victims — were children and parents.

“This was an attack on the softest target out there: young girls,” said Janet Snyder, the longtime Kiss 98.5 FM morning-show host. “Terrorists are willing to go to places that were so always off limits. You would never kill a woman or a child in war.

“The terrorists of today, unfortunately, there’s no rules. There’s no one that’s off limits.”

Hockey fans pass through the security checkpoint during day two of the NHL Draft at KeyBank Center last June. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

And we’re all struggling with it. Logically, we know that the vast majority of us never have been, and likely never will be, directly affected by a terrorism attack. But as parents, as children, as people, we’re naturally imaginative. We’re instinctively drawn to two words: “What if?”

That’s a powerful question. Used right, it sparks a brain dance that can lead to great things: world-changing inventions, classic stories, legendary songs. But positioned against terror-induced tragedies that seem to be becoming chronic, the words “What if?” trigger fear.

They leave us looking for answers. They leave us looking for escape plans.

“You’re always concerned about fanatics,” says TLC manager Bill Diggins. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Buffalo News)

The music manager Bill Diggins, a Buffalo native who lives in San Francisco, estimates he’s made 250 trips to England over the last 25 years. He was there a couple weeks ago with his band, the pop group TLC, which had a sold-out concert in London. Diggins’ success as a manager is partly attributable to his ability to apply a steely, numbers-driven logic to an industry that inherently resists rules and parameters.

But attacks like the one in Manchester spark fear even in him.

“I have to be honest and say it does,” Diggins said. “You’re always concerned about fanatics.”

Diggins was in Los Angeles when the attack happened. He was deep into preparations for TLC’s performance the next day on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” But it still was personal for him. Diggins knows some of the promoters who were running Grande's Manchester show. He’s a dad, too — the foster parent of a 19-year-old woman in Nepal.

“I just thought about these parents buying tickets for the children, the children’s excitement to go to the show, parents’ excitement to pick the children up afterward and hear all about, in some cases, maybe their first concert,” Diggins said. “In other cases, maybe their first and last concert.”

As a manager must, Diggins shifts deftly from the emotional to the pragmatic.

“I’ve had discussions with Tionne and Chilli,” he said, referring to the “T” and “C” of TLC. “This is horrific, but the odds of this happening to you are very slim statistically. If you look at it statistically, the odds of you getting hit by a car are much greater.”

This is true, and though it should be reassuring, it rarely is. Even Adam Cohen, the special agent in charge of the Buffalo office of the FBI, didn’t leap to point out the odds. In an interview this week, he did acknowledge the chances of tragic attack – which are likely on the minds of Western New Yorkers as the summer concert and festival season begins – are low.

An Erie County Sheriff's Office bomb technician examines a suspicious package in a portable toilet at Canalside after a concert last summer. The package turned out to be a false alarm. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

“If you look across the number of concerts, the number of big venues and events that take place every single year here in Western New York or across the country, the likelihood of something happening is incredibly, incredibly low,” said Cohen, whose agents work closely with other law enforcement agencies, as well as concert venues and private security companies, to both prevent potential attacks and put plans in place for emergency situations.

But that point about the odds wasn’t the first one Cohen made. The overarching message from Cohen – and this is one widely echoed by law enforcement officials – is you should always prepare for potential problems when you’re in a public place. Check out your surroundings, know the exits, be watchful for people or things that seem out of place, and speak up to an officer if something seems not right. Prepare for the worst-case scenario, but don’t fixate on it.

“They should be aware of it, they should think about it,” Cohen said, “but they should not be paralyzed by fear.”

But paralysis – or even a lesser spin-off emotion of fear, like numbness – can be tough to shake. You probably won’t ever be target — but somewhere deep in your mind, you know you could be.

Jeff Timmons has learned to live with a small amount of fear — or put another way, a healthy and helpful dose of paranoia. He’s the founder of the boy band 98 Degrees, which, in its 1990s and early 2000s heyday, stood behind only ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys as the object of fan adulation. 98 Degrees still occasionally tours, and they still have a devoted legion of admirers.

“You have the loyal fans, you have the amazing fans, you have fans that we’ve been gaining throughout the years,” Timmons said this week from Las Vegas, where he lives. “And then you have some people who take it overboard. You kind of get a little bit scared of it, because it seems as if they don’t see you as a regular person.”

When people do things like leave their jobs to follow the band, or take out large loans to fund trips to every concert, Timmons said, “You start to wonder what their thought processes are.”

Timmons has dealt with stalkers, but won’t go into details.

“You start to become a little bit concerned, but at the same time, you can’t live in fear,” he said. “You can’t do this based in fear. You have to have a certain amount of faith that security is going to do their job and people aren’t going to go off the deep end and do something irrational or crazy like this. You’ve just got to press forward.”

But here’s the looming question: Exactly how do you learn to live in fear?

“That’s just life,” he said.” You can’t predict life. I’m at the gym right now. I could walk out and get hit by a car or have a heart attack. Tragedy can strike at any time. You can’t control the universe. All you can do is have faith.”

Timmons knows this isn’t a fully developed, step-by-step answer. That’s because he can’t give one. Living with fear involves a single step: You live your life smartly and cautiously, and you tap into whatever forms your faith.

Which brings us back to the element of the Manchester attack that claws at our sense of faith and fairness: Children died.

Why?

That’s an awful question to let the “What if?” side of your brain explore, but it’s unavoidable.

“This was an attack on the softest target out there: young girls,” said Snyder, who was discussing the aftereffects of the Manchester bombing at home this week with her 23-year-old daughter, Kristen Kelly, and her son’s girlfriend, Sara DiBernardo, who is also 23.

Kelly, who had a personal connection with someone who was affected by a terrorist attack in France, said the Manchester tragedy “was even harder for me to hear about.

“It made me feel guilty, because I was like, ‘Why do I care about this more? Why do I feel more strongly about this happening?’” said Kelly, who is a master’s student in neuroscience at the University at Buffalo. “It reminded me of Sandy Hook. This attack was so baseless, it felt so much more violent because it was targeting mothers and daughters.”

DiBernardo, a law student at the University of Maryland, said the news sent her back to the 9/11 attacks.

“I was just in elementary school” in 2001, she said. “I didn’t have to think about the pain of it. Now these things are happening, I’m old enough to comprehend it, and it’s hard to understand why people do these things. It’s almost, I wish I didn’t have to understand it.”

Here’s something we can understand and embrace: Since 9/11, the United States and Europe are better prepared to prevent large (think Twin Towers-scale) attacks.

“Since that attack, we’ve made tremendous improvements in our ability to address terrorist threats primarily that originate overseas,” said John Cohen, a former high-ranking official in the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration.

Then he delivers the bad news.

“The problem is the threat has evolved in such a way that our current counter-terrorism capabilities, as robust as they are, are ill-suited to address it,” Cohen said, who focused on counterterrorism as an acting undersecretary at DHS and now teaches on the subject as a professor at Rutgers University.

Cohen, who is not related to the FBI agent in Buffalo, is saying that counter-terrorism officials are well-poised to stop plans orchestrated by large terrorist organizations. But comparatively smaller-scale attacks like Manchester, carried out by individuals and small groups, are more difficult to ferret out.

“They self-connect with the ideology of a terrorist group and they carry out an attack on behalf of the ideology but independent of the group itself,” Cohen said. “That makes it very difficult… to prevent these types of attacks”

At Rutgers, Cohen is co-leading a group trying to tackle this problem. Officials from the areas of law enforcement and mental health, plus faith leaders and community leaders in Europe and the United States, are working together to study the psychological and behavioral characteristics of individuals who became mass casualty attackers. The group will then develop what Cohen calls a “prevention framework” to help law enforcement find these people before it’s too late.

“We’re living in an age where people need to be very aware,” Cohen said, adding, “Be aware, not scared. I think that’s just the best way to describe it.”

The Hollywood journalist Ken Baker, who’s covered many tragedies for E! News, has an idea about awareness. Baker, a native of Hamburg who now lives outside Los Angeles, has spent the last year writing “The Ken Commandments,” a book about his “search for God in Hollywood.”

“I’ve noticed a lot of positive change in my life by meditating on the idea of love — it starts with ourselves,” said Baker, whose book will be released later this year.

When Baker learned this week of the Manchester attack, he was riding home on the Los Angeles subway. He immediately started thinking of his middle-school daughter Chloe, who had been away at a hockey tournament in Europe. A flood of emotions coursed through Baker: anger, fear, paranoia. But then he settled on the idea of using love and compassion to drown out hate.

“I know a lot of people say, ‘That's not going to do us a lot of good. We’ve got to go find these people,’” he said. “And they’re right. We do have to find these people. There needs to be justice. I totally agree. But we also need to focus on putting out positive energy as well that the world needs. It’s a balance.”

A balance that's scary.

And a balance that’s vital.

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