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Recovering From Disaster Attacks | Charlotte Monteil


Like many of the French people, I have been very shocked by the attacks in Paris. It is scary, even if we insist that we are not afraid. Of course we are. But I am not only scared by the potential of future attacks. I am more scared by the way that society might change for the worse. The next months and years will be decisive for our society. They will decide the extent to which we stood up to the attack. That is where I make the links with my research. The recovery process from the terrorist attacks is in some ways analogous to the recovery process following a disaster, i.e. what I am studying for my PhD. If I dare to compare a terrorist attack with a “natural” disaster, it is because they are both a sudden event which bring to light previous issues in the society. The theory of vulnerability in disaster studies argues that there are no natural disasters 1,2. Disasters are human constructs. If the entire society is well-functioning, it can adapt to the hazard and the society recovers quickly and on a sustainable way. If the society is sick, if a part of it is marginalised, then the disaster may generate highly negative impacts in the long-term.

The attack in Paris is like a natural hazard. It is something against which we cannot really act. Terrorists are very powerful, highly organised and whatever we try to do against them, they will find a way around. We might be able to all but eradicate terrorism one day, but it will be extremely costly and certainly not completely gone. Similarly, when confronted with a flood, we can build a dam but the water will continue to flow, and one day it may break the dam. In the attacks of 13/11, the victims were not only the people who were killed. The victim is the whole society. We are all affected in some way.


Most of us are devastated, some are celebrating the event, but we will all change our behaviour in some ways and sometimes our political opinions in relation to that hazard. The disaster is that many people died, but also that we are losing part of our freedom, our values and our unity. The issue now is to see whether France will fluctuat nec mergitur (in other words, "will float and will not sink"), whether the French society will face the attacks without long-term significant damages or whether that attacks are the trigger of a general social degradation.


To manage a disaster, it is essential to be adequately prepared by reducing the vulnerability of people to the hazard. Then when the event occurs, post-disaster management is also essential. Yet in France, pre-disaster management seems to be missing. Society has become progressively more and more divided. People's voices have lost their power and a large part of the population, especially (but not only) the immigrants (and second generation of immigrants) have been widely excluded and persecuted daily. A socio-political context very prone to division, hatred and fear. A socio-political context which neither helps against the radicalisation of some lost minds nor against the success of populist and xenophobic discourses. But both the government and the common citizens have remained apathetic for years. Struggle against that social degradation would have required too much work while our successive governments all act on the short-term to ensure their electoral success.

So these attacks, the disaster, occurs within a sick system. It is a bit like a flood occurring in a village already affected by famine and internal conflict. The resources needed to face the flood are missing and the hazard may amplify all these issues, perhaps even lead to an outbreak of disease or other socio-economic difficulties. However now it is too late for pre-disaster measures. We are already in the post-disaster stage.


So what is already starting to happen? French government has decided to mobilise huge resources to fight against the terrorists. Well… that may be necessary, I don't know… but it is definitively not the only thing we could be doing. It is like fixing the dam while famine and disease are growing in the flooded village. Society will become more and more divided and soon France will not need terrorism anymore to have conflict within its territory. The most marginalised communities, the Muslims and the refugees, will be the first victims. As scapegoats, they will be accused even more-so than now of every social ill. The terrorist attacks will finally be only a small event in the whole process, the domino which falls and takes with it the rest of an unstable set, a fault in a dam that people could not fix on time.

Yes, the attacks were dramatic but even more dramatic would be not acting appropriately for recovering. Now our task is to be stronger, more united. It is not only a matter of words. It requires a lot work. It requires us to improve our education system, to reduce the inequalities, to promote free and diverse media. It may require a total change in our democratic system so that every part of the population is better represented. But as soon as we become a supportive and equal society once again, as soon as our voices are valued, as soon as the ethnic and cultural differences no longer matter, we will have recovered. Not by returning to the normality pre-attacks3,4 but by becoming stronger in the face of any terrorist attack, by pursuing our lives without divisions, by being able next time to face the flood without losing the few values we still have. At that time we will be able to say that Paris fluctuat nec mergitur.




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