The rush to remember: Sensitivity in the memorial response to the Paris attacks

Posted by ap507 at Nov 20, 2015 10:15 AM |
Dr Matthew Allen discusses post-conflict responses to attacks
The rush to remember: Sensitivity in the memorial response to the Paris attacks

French police gathering evidence at the Bataclan theatre on 14 November

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The harrowing images of last week’s attacks carried out on Parisian streets quickly became a global focus for debate. Some citizens are calling for tighter border controls, a response that has rightly been harangued by individuals and groups concerned with the xenophobic implications. A familiar series of media templates are about to unfold. The attacks will continue to be framed as a collective injury on a nation. Lazy and vested news reporting will deploy misleading and divisive terms like “radicalisation”. Images of survivors will be recruited as symbols of national resilience, the names of victims will be uttered to legitimate retributive measures under the auspices of justice and bereaved relatives will have conferred upon them a special authority in the moral politics of blame and forgiveness that will follow.

Precisely how the attacks are remembered and how organizations compel people to remember is an understated, and often neglected, aspect of the post-conflict response to the attacks.  A rush to commemorate the attacks will be distressing for survivors and bereaved relatives. There are some lessons that can be learned in the hope that the memorial response to the Paris attacks can be more sensitively managed than the response to 7/7. The first official remembrance service after 7/7 took place in November 2005, in St Paul’s cathedral. Many of the individuals I spoke to felt the coordination of the service was poorly handled. The timing of the event was considered “too soon”.  The seating plan was physically divisive and frustrating as injured survivors felt that they were “pushed off to one side” and “could not see the central goings on”. Meanwhile the centrality of political and religious leaders was commented upon as distasteful.

Compensating the survivors and bereaved relatives became a controversial issue. A government report stated that survivors found the compensation process bureaucratic, slow and distressing; one survivor compared the process to going through the Argos catalogue. The process involved submitting a standard form with police and medical reports, the Authority then determines the sum paid according to a table of compensation awards. The problem with this is that grief and trauma are deeply subjective experiences. In contrast, the compensation process involved distressingly objectifying tools for thinking about, remembering and communicating a painful relationship to the past.

Government support for the independent remembrance practices was inconsistent. In the aftermath of the bombings, some survivors organised their own memorial practices, for example, establishing an informal group called Kings Cross United, the group would meet in the pub and discuss, amongst more ordinary topics, their recovery and plans for a public inquiry. The group also shared information about their first hand experiences of the Kings Cross explosion, which helped other group members gain a more detailed, albeit vernacular, understanding of exactly what happened on that day.

Going forward, the French authorities must resist the rush to commemorate the attacks and manage the memorial response with sensitivity. Of course sensitivity is a value-laden term. After the 2005 London bombings this means recognising a broader landscape of remembrance practices beyond official services, such as informal pub meetings and compensation forms, and prioritise making these activities more liveable for survivors and bereaved relatives.

Dr Matthew Allen, Lecturer in Culture and Political Economy from the Innovation, Science & Technology Group, School of Management, University of Leicester

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