Author: Gérôme Truc

Publisher: Polity Press

ISBN: 978-1-5095-2034-3

    The passage of time often allows more objective analyses of human events and our reactions to them.  Considering that terrorist attacks still continue around the world, particularly in Europe and the U.S., whether domestic or otherwise, one might ask if enough time has passed after the WTC in New York (September 11, 2001), the trains in Madrid (March 11, 2004), the attacks in London (July 7, 2005), and the Charlie Hebdo HQ in Paris (November 13, 2015) to make objective analyses possible, but this book is certainly a good start. In fact, to give a cliché new meaning, time is of the essence here: the author explains how the reactions to those events, our solidarity with the people affected, and media reactions mutated with time in each country affected, either internalizing or globalizing until the time of this analysis.

    Much is made of media participation. For example, consider: “It is the very nature of journalistic discourse to combine description with political analysis: while it frames the event (what is happening), it helps to constitute the collective subject of that event (the people to whom it is happening). Commenting on what was happening to ‘us.’” Media coverage varied from country to country and evolved in time. Even this in itself would have made an interesting discussion. I’d remark that the time span between London and Paris attacks must factor into this discussion—media coverage naturally evolved over ten years.

    For the most part, this is a sociological work written from the French perspective. Considering the author’s background, that’s understandable, but that perspective might have caused him to miss a few things. For example, in his discussion of the effects of media imagery, he missed how two photos, one of a Vietnamese police chief’s execution of a Vietcong guerrilla, the other of a naked Vietnamese child fleeing the violence, crystallized American opinion against the Vietnam War. While immediately after 9/11 the media fixated on analogies to Pearl Harbor, many Americans I knew in that same period recalled the atrocities of both non-wars after World War Two, the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

    That’s not to say that emphasis on the French perspective isn’t justified.  With the attack on the Charlie Hebdo HQ, terrorism arrived in France for the first time after seeing it arrive ten years earlier in the three other countries.  I also feel that the author failed to mention that the three European countries mentioned created more of a breeding ground for radicalism by what can only be called more of a failure to assimilate immigrants compared to Canada and the U.S. Sociological analysis can’t exist without historical perspective. To be fair, the author provides plenty of the latter, so these criticisms are minor and probably biased by my own point of view from across the pond.

    The main question the author asks in this book is: Why are we concerned about terrorist attacks when we’re not the victims? Two subsidiary questions naturally follow: What are we reacting to? And what made us react? All these questions are complex and therefore not easily answered. Wound into the discussion is a detailed analysis best summarized by the following quote: “…in modern societies, mechanical solidarity, based on the simple fact of belonging to the same group [I call this tribalism], is forever retreating [and sometimes being replaced by]…organic solidarity, which proceeds from the differentiation of individuals within the group. Collective consciousness collapses…. Social cohesion, therefore, is no longer as immediate, or obvious, in them…. And that is precisely why terrorist attacks [and confrontational politics] are ordeals for modern societies—in fact, they are unique to these societies. ” The author is essentially quoting Durkheim from a century earlier (comments in brackets are mine), but I feel this summarizes the discussion in the book.

    The book ably covers both people and media’s reaction to the four events mentioned above. Professor Truc is a sociologist who now teaches at the Êcole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay.  This book is based on his doctoral thesis.  I’m not sure what audience it will have. Certainly academics—there’s an impressive amount of research reported on here, and it’s ably interpreted. It can also serve as a reference for writers and anyone else who wants to measure reactions to other terrorist events against the four studied here. I would go further: anyone who wants to understand the hows and whys of the way we react to these events can start here and/or learn from this book. There is nothing like a common threat to bring civilized women and men together, and it’s extremely useful for us to understand the different ways this can happen. More studies like this are needed.