Nicolas Henin, Consultant and trainer in counter-terrorism and radicalization
Resilience is a notion that has become fashionable and very successful. It is loaded with positive values, referring to the ability to take a hard hit. At a time when we seem to doubt our own ability to overcome crises, whether they are security, humanitarian, economic or social, the word “resilience” is extremely reassuring. A sign of this success is the rapid spread of the term in strategic doctrines.
The first text to establish resilience as an integral component of an anti-terrorism strategy is the Resilience Act passed in 2003 in the United Kingdom. In France, the term appears in the 2008 White Paper on Defence and Homeland Security. At the European level, Wolfgang Wagner and Rosanne Anholt point out that while the term “resilience” was still absent from the 2003 European Security Strategy, it has become a leitmotif, appearing 40 times in the EU Global Strategy and shows even more occurrences than terms such as “human rights” or “democracy”.
“Resilience” in the literal sense is a physical term referring to the ability of a body or material to return to its original form after being subjected to an impact or pressure. Yet this definition, which tends to reduce resilience to the properties of a shape memory pillow, is too restrictive: the word is used for beings, individuals or societies, who are alive, intelligent and have their own reactions, their psychology and political culture. It is not a physical reaction. We will use as a definition the ability of an individual or group to withstand and recover from shocks.
The success of the term is undoubtedly due to its plasticity: if the word has been popularized in psychology, we are also talking about the resilience of organizations, networks and societies. The word probably also owes part of its success to the image of autonomy to which it refers; when we talk about a country’s capacity for resilience in a post-conflict situation, we talk above all about its internal resources and not about external actions. Resilience is as much an ability as a willingness to overcome a critical situation. Finally, the term is used both to refer to the reaction to a crisis of external or internal origin, either accidental or hostile.
Studying resilience entails confronting the fact we may be hit, which has sometimes led to a contemptuous definition of the word. As if admitting that we can be hit is an admission of weakness. After attacks, there have been criticisms of calls from governments to “show resilience. Some people even found it relevant to oppose resilience and resistance — as if the first meant resignation to, or acceptance of, the idea that we should be hit, while “resistance” implied a noble posture of refusing to be struck. This dichotomy is in fact quite artificial.
Anyone engaging in a fight knows that he or she is at risk of being hit. And if he doesn’t know it, he risks being seriously destabilized from the very first moments of the fight! Unlike any passivity in the face of hits, resilience is the ability to recover and return to a position of hitting as quickly as possible after taking a significant hit yourself. Given this, resilience is anything but a renunciation of resistance. On the contrary, it is an essential condition for resistance.
In a crisis, a state will expose its resilience, its ability to return people to a relatively normal life. This is not solely a measurable capacity: it is a matter of whether the public trusts the government to return this normalcy, and that trust is self-fuelled and if present will accelerate the process of normalization. On the other hand, if the public doubts that the government’s capacity, the return to normal will be slowed down and perhaps prevented. A state’s existence can founder on a single crisis if it’s severe enough and its reaction bad enough.
During a crisis, especially if it involves hostile action against the civilian population or other events that bring about a high death toll, the fire and rescue services and front-line hospital units will have a major role to play. This is especially true as the cohesion of a society is based, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim demonstrated, on a division of labour.
As Durkheim points out, we individually renounce the carrying of a weapon because we know that some (namely the police) are there to ensure the protection of all. We do not all become physicians capable of treating ourselves because we have confidence that those in charge of relief and health will be able to nurse us to recovery if we have an accident or become ill. If this social contract should fail, or should become distrusted, the cohesion of the national community is affected.
A significant part of resilience is a matter of communication. Above all, communication must be sincere. A classic case demonstrating this — from a negative perspective — is the fate of José María Aznar’s government in Spain. Aznar attributed the 2004 bombings in Madrid, on the eve of a national election, to separatists, when in fact it was Al-Qaeda. The public saw through this and believed it was dishonesty; Aznar’s government fell.
Communication during a crisis must convey calm and competence. The state must be seen to be continuing to function at full capacity. In the event of an attack, any communication that is defensive will be seen as anxious. Because of the popularity and trust they enjoy among the population, fire and rescue services can be an important vehicle for communication; as we know, in communications the sender of a message is at least as important as its content.
In the event of a major crisis, particularly if it is due to a hostile act, the public will first turn to the emergency services in order to limit its impact. The action of these services will be limited to “saving the rescuable”, which implies accepting the idea that part of the material or human destruction is what firefighters call “the share of fire”, a section of the disaster that we come to terms with not to fight in order to concentrate our resources on realistic goals. Confidence and expectations in the rescue services will be high, increasing the risk of public disappointment.
Rescue services, through their experience, have built their own resilience. They know that major events as well as the wear and tear of operational overload can cause their attrition. The priority is to protect personnel both during and after the event. The circle of staff affected by a crisis tends to be broadened. Thus, it is not only the staff present on an intervention that may have been shocked by this intervention, but also the staff who contributed to the intervention from the call centre or command room. On major events such as the attacks of 13 November 2015 in Paris, all responders were offered a follow-up.
Resilience is not only human; it is material. In a crisis, infrastructures, installations, and networks can be strained. And stored resources (food, fuel) are depleted. Managing this takes work.
Resilience is a process, a construction that requires a great deal of preparation. The aim is to prepare the actors for the crisis by reducing the surprise effect — taking care, however, that this preparation work is not worrying. A terrorist event is unique in that it is a hostile action to which rescue services are not accustomed; they generally only intervene on the fringes of criminal violence.
All crisis management experts stress the need for regular, realistic and interdepartmental training. A week before September 11, a crisis exercise simulated the destruction of the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) command post. This exercise allowed the rescue services to learn lessons that they were able to apply immediately.
One of the main obstacles to the action of prime responders during a terrorist event is the understanding of the overall scene, especially if the attack is complex or evolving. Sideration, which must be understood as the antithesis of resilience, must be avoided, which implies lifting as soon as possible the fog of war with which the aggressors will seek to surround their actions. First responders, at the same time as carrying out the first damage control and protection actions, will need to acquire information quickly in order to establish a comprehensive picture as soon as possible.
After a major attack, society will need some time to regain its calm. Security incidents will tend to increase (reports of abandoned parcels, crowd movements, etc.), especially since the tracking of perpetrators or accomplices by police forces can take several days and copy-cat attacks can occur and maintain tension.
These considerations bring us back to the essence of terrorism: even more so than in a regular conflict, its objective is to achieve a collapse of its target, its institutions and its morale. Raymond Aron gets to the essence with his definition: “a violent action is called terrorist when its psychological effects are out of proportion with its purely physical results”. From this point of view, terrorism is not so much a violation of war as its caricature: terrorism is indeed, even more than a war, a clash of wills rather than force, and resilience is essential to our will.
While the resilience of rescue services, because they are the first responders, is essential, it is not sufficient. Similarly, resilience is not only the securing of the functioning of the state but a much more inclusive process, involving the different strata of the social body, including economic actors and local administrations.
The population in developed countries has a high need for reassurance. It must be possible to satisfy it without maintaining the myth that it is totally free from any crisis or aggression. The resilience of emergency services is the last line of defence. So it must remain. To allow this to happen, all the elements of state and society upstream of this frontline must be involved and strengthened. Just as the best ambulance responders will often not be able to revive a victim of cardiac arrest if a witness has not started resuscitation before their arrival, the best rescue services will not be able to respond to a serious crisis, especially a terrorist one, without the active involvement of the civil society.
 Wolfgang Wagner & Rosanne Anholt (2016) Resilience as the EU Global Strategy’s new leitmotif: pragmatic, problematic or promising?, Contemporary Security Policy, 37:3, 414-430, DOI: 10.1080/13523260.2016.1228034
 Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, 1893.
 Raymond Aron, Peace and War ; A Theory of International Relations, 1962.