Book Review: Shell Shocked: The Social Response to Terrorist Attacks by Gérôme Truc

Review by Dr Anne Eyre

Gérôme Truc is a sociologist and tenured research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and member of the Institut des Sciences sociales du Politique, based at the University Paris Nanterre and the ENS Paris-Saclay. His work focuses primarily on social reactions to terrorist attacks and their memorialisation, and more generally on moral and political sociology. Holding a PhD from the EHESS, he leads the REAT research project, supported by the CNRS, and he is involved in the interdisciplinary “13-November” research program, directed by the CNRS and the INSERM. Shell Shocked: The Social Response to Terrorist Attacks was published by Polity in 2017.

Acts of terrorism across the globe have increased markedly in recent decades, inspiring the proliferation of terrorism-related studies, courses in terrorism and counter-terrorism, and international, even global, research networks. In this multidisciplinary field of enquiry sociology has an important contribution to make in helping us understand the impact of and social responses to terrorism in contemporary societies.

Shell Shocked provides just such a contribution. Based on analysis conducted over several years it examines the way ordinary individuals lived through and responded to the attacks of 9/11, the Madrid bombings (2004) and the July 7 attacks in London (2005). Drawing on primary research Gérôme Truc views a whole series of questions that arose in France following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris Hypermarket in January 2015; those same questions were still relevant to understanding reactions to the Paris attacks that followed in November 2015 and remain pertinent to our addressing more recent attacks and subsequent social responses.

The questions he tackles include: Why is it that such attacks do not leave us indifferent? Why do we feel concerned by them when we are not direct victims ourselves, and do not personally know those who are? Why are we shell shocked when we learn what has happened? What exactly are we reacting to? Further key questions include the extent to which media coverage of the attacks and the way the authorities themselves react impacts on our own reactions. And, asks Truc, what emotional springs are set in motion by the event that make us react as we do?

In this context the role of sociological analysis, Truc states, is to see what is going on beyond political discourse, and to embrace the reactions of ordinary citizens in their plurality in order to shed light on what produces those reactions. Thus the book offers ‘a sociology of terrorist attacks’ (focussing on responses to terrorist events that have occurred as opposed to a sociology of terrorism and the kind of political and social analyses of causes that others have pursued). To produce a sociology of terrorist attacks Truc asks what connects us to each other and makes us sensitive to the fate of others, in our own society as well as beyond its borders. In other words, he says, it involves reconnecting with one of the founding questions of sociology, that of the relationship between individuals and group, and of the mechanisms of solidarity in modern societies.

Truc points out that this is a question which all classic writers in the discipline have had to face, starting with Emile Durkheim. Indeed at the time of writing The Division of Labour Durkheim was himself living in a society confronting the threat of terrorism – at that time French anarchic terrorism – to the prevailing social and republican order. And, Truc explains, the same phenomena of social solidarity as described by Durkheim have been witnessed in social responses to more recent terrorist attacks, namely ‘mechanical solidarity’ in the form of national cohesion and a sense of community in America post-9/11, and ‘organic solidarity’ based on social differentiation rather than just a sense of community and spreading to an international scale.

In Part 1 of the book – ‘What is happening to us’ – Truc addresses the question ‘what are we reacting to’? He discusses the various facets of events associated with Islamist attacks in Western territory, including their treatment in the media as part of their ‘framing’ by journalists, politicians and intellectuals among others. Truc’s hermeneutic skills are in evidence as he reveals the post-hoc framing process that transformed 9/11 from an event into a structure in the American and European collective consciousness.  Writing for the book’s cover the prominent Social Theorist Professor Jeffrey Alexander of Yale University praises Truc for relating the immediate attribution of the “war” frame to deep collective memories in the U.S. about Pearl Harbor, and the way he relativises European understandings of subsequent terrorist events in the same way, demonstrating that they are interpretations based on analogical reasoning rather than explanations based on real experience.

Such framing of terrorist acts matters, not only in terms of political consequences (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq both used the attack as justification for military intervention) but also for emotional sense-making. In this context Truc examines expressions of solidarity in, for example, spontaneous gatherings and demonstrations within and beyond borders. He offers insightful commentary on observations of silence and their meaning (including where not observed), not just as as ritual displays of community mourning but also as ways of following social instructions. Here a sense of closeness to the victims is also about a wider sense of common belonging.

In Part 2 – ‘What touches us’ – Truc further examines the widespread emotional expressions following attacks, the ways we identify with the victims and how this expresses a sense of collective concern. Here he draws on an exhaustive analysis, using textual statistics software, of nearly 60,000 messages written and archived in reaction to the attack in Madrid. Based on this analysis he then explores other post-attack messages including those left following the London bombings (2005) and messages and visitor cards held at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and 9/11 Tribute Centre. Sociologists of religion, researchers into death, grief and mourning practices and cultural historians as well as practitioners managing post-attack memorials may find this aspect of his review particular interesting. Indeed scholars, archivists, museologists and disaster management professionals involved in several memorialisation activities from recent European attacks have recently formed a specialist network to share and support ongoing learning, professional practice and research around the archiving and management of spontaneous memorials after disaster.

Press archives and studies of media treatments of the 9/11, Madrid and London attacks are also studied by Truc and identified as central to his study since the mass of individuals who were not directly victims or witnesses of the attacks actually reacted less to the attacks themselves than to what they perceived of them via the media. Endorsing the importance of understanding the media’s role in framing collective trauma events, American therapist Jonathan Foiles (2018) highlights the further and continuing topical relevance of this book’s themes. He points out that in the US some mental health professionals as well as survivors of school shootings have asked the media to refrain from extensive portraits of the perpetrator, rightly fearing that such profiles could lead to copycat shootings. The current framing, he suggests, regardless of the ideological bent of the news organisation, continues to perpetuate the idea that such shootings are the actions of a lone, troubled individual. In some sense that is true, of course, he adds, and every other country in the world has lonely, troubled individuals, but only the United States has children being murdered in their schools.

The sociological mechanisms following terrorist attacks that Truc outlined initially in his investigation have remained fundamentally the same following subsequent attacks, as witnessed for example in the responses to the Nice attack in 2016 and the Manchester Arena attack (2017) during which he was completing the preface to the English edition of the book. Both in the book and in subsequent conversations Truc acknowledges that his book raises questions as well as answers and calls for more research to produce a fully fledged ‘sociology of terrorist attacks’. His wish to help us gain more perspective on how we collectively confront and respond to terrorist attacks, and thus stop being drawn into the maelstrom created in their wake, is to be commended and should inspire and inform such further endeavours.

Review by Dr Anne Eyre, Trauma Training.

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