After Paris: Examining resilience

Jessica West Defence & Human Security

Briefing 16-1
Published January 19, 2016


Click on attachment to view PDF

Jessica West

With bravery and kindness, through art, music, and social gatherings—the response to terrorism in Paris has been inspiring. But expressions of resilience and solidarity, in France and beyond, have been accompanied by a hard, excluding edge and the erosion of fundamental values, exposing an underlying fragility and fear. As democratic societies face the possibility of continued, sporadic, unpredictable violence, it is important to take time to question what it means to be resilient.

Resilience after Paris

Although by no means the only recent act of terrorism, the attack on Paris—and the response of Parisians—moved people around the world. The attacks were not only on a city, but, as French President Hollande stated, “on youth in all its diversity,” with victims from 19 countries.

With their city under siege, Parisians opened their doors to shelter those trapped in the mayhem, as reflected in the widely used hashtag #PortesOuvertes (literally, “Doors open”). While the streets are now quieter, many refuse to shut themselves away, celebrating the vibrant street life that is deeply embedded in the culture attacked by Islamic State. Under the banner #jesuisenterrace (“I am on the terrace”) people flock to bars, restaurants, and clubs. The people of Paris, and particularly the youth, mark this event not with silence and fear, but with a reaffirmation of “light, noise, joy.”

Across France people perform acts of public art, music, and poetry as a means of reaching out to one another in a common cause against fear. Graffiti is flourishing, using a #SprayForParis hashtag and a new slogan: “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” (“tossed by the waves, but does not sink”).

There are stunning moments of illumination. Consider the video of a father who gives his son a sense of hope and safety with the words “they have guns, but we have flowers.” Around the world others participate in this resilience of spirit and culture through Twitter and Facebook.

What is resilience?

Resilience is an old idea that is commonly invoked in the wake of terror. Long associated with the British ‘keep calm and carry on’ response to the Blitz during the Second World War, it resonates with a new generation caught in the violence of terrorism in London, Boston, Paris, Beirut, and beyond. Best described as an ability to bend without breaking, resilience indicates the extent to which any system—technical, social, ecological—can withstand a disruption and continue to function normally. The greater the resilience, the larger the disruption that can be absorbed.

Resilience is tightly bound with the maintenance of identity and key defining values of the system. It is also closely linked to solidarity—keeping all elements of the system within the whole. Thus, it is a particularly potent response to terror, which seeks to disrupt and divide.

But resilience should not be celebrated blindly: we must beware of its extremes. A system with too little resilience will reflect all change it encounters and collapse because it has no core. But a system with too much resilience will attempt to absorb differences without changing itself, which can produce perverse outcomes by maintaining outmoded values and identities that are no longer useful and can be too exclusive.

The social bonds, connectedness, and solidarity that reinforce resilience can harden boundaries between communities, creating insiders and outsiders and reinforcing patterns of discrimination. Each of these consequences can be seen in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Shielded by many acts of solidarity, the sword of divisiveness is ready to strike.

Exclusion: The hard edge of resilience

France, like many other countries, has been changed by decades of immigration. Throughout this process the French national identity has been incredibly resilient—and almost completely resistant to change. Its unbending nature is captured—ironically—by the National Centre for the History of Immigration, which has been described by a visitor as depicting the loneliness and exclusion of French xenophobia rather than the immigrant experience or their contributions to France. It is widely believed that this cultural reluctance to change has resulted in the social and racial divides that scar the French landscape, creating the notorious banlieues (suburbs) that serve to prevent many immigrants from enjoying the benefits of the wider community.

These social boundaries have hardened in response to terrorism. As CBC correspondent Keith Boag reported from Paris, “The country is coming together only in the sense that it might be uniting against its Muslim population.” Evidence of divisiveness have emerged on the streets of Paris. Signs have sprung up reading “Touche pas a ma capitale,” which is explained as a spin on anti-racism ads from the 1980s, turning the slogan “Hey you, don’t touch my buddy,” into “Hey you, don’t touch my city.” There have fewer appeals to solidarity with Muslims. Mosques have been desecrated. And the solidarity expressed via Twitter and Facebook have been accompanied by sentiments of hate and violence.

Across France, if not yet in Paris, there has been a surge of support for the far-right Front National, which campaigns hard on anti-immigrant themes. The French military’s hunt for those responsible for the Paris attacks has literally torn apart Muslim communities. Although France is their country and their home, it seems that French Muslims are seen more as suspects than fellow citizens.

The French reaction is not unique. Terrorism produced similar exclusionary responses in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. Since the Paris attacks the U.S. reaction to Syrian refugees has turned swiftly from welcoming to fearful. Political discourse, particularly that of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, has become heavily imbued with Islamophobia. Trump has called for a national registry for Muslims in America. After the violent attack in San Bernardino on December 2, he demanded an all-out ban on Muslims entering the country.

Reflecting a spirit of unity, President Obama’s speech to the nation after the San Bernardino attack emphasized that Americans “cannot turn against one another.” He has consistently argued that the United States is not at war with Islam, pointing out that most of the victims of ISIL have been Muslim. Yet even Obama places the onus of “rooting out” radicalism squarely on the shoulders of Muslims, while beseeching Americans to reject discrimination. In seeking solidarity he, perhaps unwittingly, divides.

Canada has fared better, but even here cracks have emerged. There have been sporadic episodes of violence against Muslims, particularly women. And while both the Canadian government and citizens have extended a generous welcome to Syrian refugees, polls indicate that negative public attitudes to Syrian refugees have increased since the Paris attacks. In response, the Canadian government has spent $500,000 on a digital ad campaign to build public support for its plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. At the same time, the government has set up an extensive screen process in the Middle East to identify potential terrorists, while effectively ruling out immigration by single men.

Short-term versus long-term resilience

The spontaneous resilience that characterized the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks—the efforts to come together in grief and hope and to maintain the vibrancy of youth that were so viciously targeted—were stunning and important. But if, as many observers have argued, we are entering an age in which such violence is the new normal, then it is not sufficient. We need to think about what resilience means in the long term. The ability to withstand a sudden, one-time event is different than the ability to weather chronic uncertainty and ongoing change. And resilience is not limitless; it can be stretched to the breaking point by repeated disruptions. France experienced six terrorist attacks in 2015 alone; it is not clear how well the country will hold together if there are more.

A longer-term response requires thinking of ways to be more inclusive. If violence continues to strengthen social divides, then at some point resilience will give way to total societal collapse.

Our society must also think about what it wants to be resilient. Everything can’t be resilient at the same time. My fear is that our democratic institutions are particularly fragile in the face of terrorism. In France, cultural resilience has been combined with a strong military response. As one citizen explained, “The poetry and images that are here, but also the very strong increase in security, French are making their statement in both ways, they will be strong in heart and in arms.” But in this effort to be, as Obama has stated, both “resilient and relentless,” we may do long-term damage to our fundamental democratic values.

Strong-arm tactics not only target Muslim populations at home and abroad, but erode democracy. France declared a nationwide state of emergency following the attacks and then extended it for an additional three months, opening the door to sweeping new police powers for warrantless surveillance, investigation, arrest, and detention. While the streets may be populated with people enjoying life, they are also heavily patrolled by armed police and military officers. While some citizens may be marking the attack on their city with noise and light, all, even those coming together to grieve, are barred from participating in demonstrations and gatherings.

Writing from Paris, American philosopher Judith Butler pinpointed this irony:

One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police.

Again, the French strong-arm response is not unique. After 9/11, the United States introduced the much maligned Patriot Act, while telling citizens to go shopping. In Canada the government was able to bring in new policing and intelligence power via Bill C-51 following the attack by a lone gunman on Parliament Hill in 2014. The speed with which we are willing to curtail democratic rights and freedoms in the face of violence, and in the name of resilience, reveals the underlying fragility of our democratic institutions. And our fear.

Thinking about these contradictions and how we might be more resilient, I am, as Butler has described it, “at an impasse.” I am inspired by the acts of bravery, kindness, generosity, and solidarity witnessed in the midst of terror and by the efforts of citizens to maintain a joie de vivre in Paris. I am hopeful in the way diverse communities from across Canada have come together to provide safe homes for refugees fleeing violence. I am cautiously optimistic about the effort in France to unite against the National Front in the second round of regional elections.

But resilience is a constant struggle. In our efforts to stand firm against terror, we need to reflect on whom we exclude and how we can widen our embrace. Democratic societies also need time to reflect more deeply on the values that define them, and to consider how these values can be sustained and incorporated into our long-term response to fear and violence. Resilience is only as powerful as the values that it upholds.

Spread the Word