Trauma and Collective Identity After Paris

The Impact of Insecurity on Self-Other Relations

Collective trauma has important implications that go beyond individual psychological traces and stretch over onto the very fabric of community. Most scholars argue that trauma has fragmenting, and therefore destructive effects on social groups. This claim however disregards the immediacy of social bonding through shared perceptions of insecurity. At the example of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and the local, regional and international responses to those events, this paper will make an attempt to shed light on the question to what extent emotional responses to insecurity contribute to the formation of collective self- identity in delineation from Other. How can trauma create bonds through commonly perceived insecurity? How does that impact the way we respond to, deal with, and implement such trauma in discourse, but also in policy making?

The inquiry at hand is divided into three parts: First, linkages between insecurity, trauma, and collective identity are theorised. Second, drawing from the advantages of anthropological method, a brief analysis of selected personal and political statements will contrast micro-level personal reactions, meso-level national discourse and macro-level international responses. Finally, theory and discourse are brought together so as to hint at the possible political implications of understanding trauma as a reactive ‘social glue’.

Ultimately, this attempt can inform both International Relations (IR) and political anthropology. The formation of self and Other bears important, if not severe, implications for the way sub-groups of society interact domestically as well as internationally, something that is of utmost relevance for example in the European Union, as recently in the case of the refugee crisis, but also more broadly in any type of inter-societal encounter. It moreover illustrates how violence can produce trauma, while trauma can also bring about distinctions through the practice of ‘Othering’ that may or may not culminate in violence.

Trauma, Insecurity, and Collective Identity

Trauma is conventionally understood as a disturbance or disruption of “one’s understanding of the world and how it works”, usually following a painful experience of war, danger, abuse, or other forms of suffering. It discloses “human vulnerability” by questioning a certain “capacity to control” (Hutchison 2010: 67-68). This broad definition applies to both the individual and the collective level. An individual, specifically targeted traumatic experience can be part of a larger collective trauma, as much as any collective trauma translates into many instances of individual trauma.

Yet, collective trauma is necessarily more than just the sum of individual traumatic experiences. Three arguments can be made on this basis. First, the loss of control of a victimised community compares to “an experience of defeat, humiliation, or conflict” (Fierke 2007: 136) and thus immediately assumes a political dimension. Second, it creates a sense of insecurity that affects not only those immediately confronted with the traumatic experience but can be diffused via representations in public discourse and the media. Third, the former two points imply that the political sphere is able to absorb these affective energies and mobilise sentiment around the insecurity that stems from trauma. In sum, trauma plays an incredibly important role to the way we respond to particularly shocking or frightening experiences both as a sentimental collectivity and as parts of a political entity.

The above points suggest a close connection between trauma, insecurity, and collective identity. Let me expand on this with the help of Steele’s concept of ontological security. This theory refers to a sense of self-identity, the consistency of which is of primary concern to the nation-state. In subtle resemblance of the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1962), Steele posits that nation-states generally seek to maintain “consistent self- concepts” (Steele 2008: 3) and make attempts to secure this consistency when under threat.

In conjunction with the traumatic experience of a terrorist attack, it is not difficult to see how one key collective response would be to seek “reaffirmation of one’s self identity” in order to “reduce insecurity and existential anxiety” (Kinnvall 2004: 741). A concentric movement toward signifiers of self is thus essential to the re-establishment of a consistent sense of self that is threatened.

Trauma is intimately intertwined with memory, which can be selectively retrieved, remembered, mobilised, and morphed — even more so, I suggest, if in the interest of an entire collective. The nation-state, in this regard, is a pivotal platform for the reification of trauma in politically adjusted terms. This plays a particularly aggravated role in a post-9/11 world, with serious consequences. Consider how asylum is regulated in terms of potential threats to security (Gibney 2002), or military offensives are launched in retaliatory response to a terrorist attack (as in France’s military answer to the November 2015 attacks). These are but examples of how affective ruptures in the rationality of political decision-making take place against a background of trauma. In this paper, I will put a particular emphasis on the immediate aftermath of the traumatic experience rather than its use as a more long-term narrative, as one could claim the events of 9/11 serve as.

In my approach I draw heavily on Hutchison’s (2010) work on the politics of emotions in Australia after the 2002 Bali bombings. Hutchison particularly emphasises the crucial role of emotions in crises and as “pivotal sites for the renewal of political stability and social control” (Hutchison 2010: 65). She stresses how trauma disrupts a sense of being in control. Publicly mediated expressions of the trauma that arose after the Bali attacks, she argues, were able to “provide a sense of collective feeling that is capable of underpinning political community” (ibid.: 65). Moreover, she formulates an explicit link between the discursive mobilisation of trauma, the reproduction of community, and security by explaining that “solidarity constructed after trauma often serves not merely to reinstate a conservative and ultimately exclusionary vision of political community” but also as “a source of perceived cultural (or national) injury that risks fuelling new conflict” (ibid.: 66). This points very clearly at the dangers that can arise when politics bases itself on traumatised solidarities.

Self and Other

In the following I want to demonstrate, at the example of the immediate aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, how trauma not only exerts a force that draws individuals closer to signifiers of collective identity, but also how such identity is based on making distinctions between self and Other evident. I will first review some of the literature that comes close to my own endeavour, and subsequently analyse particular utterances of that trauma myself.

In a contribution to English School theories on the constitution of international society, Neumann and Welsh (1991) present ‘us and them’-dualisms as part of a broader cultural logic which they see at play along with the logic of raison d’état at the heart of realist IR. They criticise the neglect of cultural variables in mainstream theories of state interaction, but also showcase a way of doing otherwise at the example of the historically embedded relationship between Europe and Turkey. Relevant for the debate on trauma and self-Other relations is their conclusion that “the Other […] played a decisive role in the evolution of the European identity” (Neumann/Welsh 1991: 329). Ultimately, they point at how collective identity may on the one hand serve as internal solidarity, but how on the other hand it can also render the integration of Other immensely more difficult (ibid.: 348).

Karpiak (2016), in turn, interprets police as a particular security mediator between state and public after the attacks on the editorial office of French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and those of November 2015 on the cultural venue La Bataclan. He observes how, soon after the tragic events, “a dramatic reorganisation of key symbols in public discourse” (Karpiak 2016: 70) took place. He describes this reorganisation as a “subtle shift in the public performance of prominent national symbols” (ibid.: 70) such as the flag or the national anthem. With regard to the January attacks, he comments on two instances of public reaction: the January 11 March of the Republic, a mass demonstration with some of the world’s political leaders in the front rows, and the Je Suis Charlie (‘I Am Charlie’) campaign across social media platforms. While Karpiak understands the former as a more tangible political response, he contends that the latter act as “a vector of identification and empathy” (ibid.: 71). Identity and empathy, I would add, are what transforms the traumatic events into some kind of ‘social glue’. A collective identification with the victims however also reproduces the fundamental intention of any terrorist act: the dispersion of fear. This includes a simultaneous self-identification in opposition to Other — the collective victim is placed in opposition to the foreign perpetrator.

In a recent, brief inquiry into the ISIS attacks in Paris and Brussels, Neofotistos (2016) similarly points at a “massive outpouring of empathy”, particularly on social media platforms. He makes an argument about self-Other relations by contrasting the media coverage on the Paris and Brussels attack in 2015 and 2016 to that of the Beirut bombing in November 2015, the month in which the Bataclan attacks were taking place. He argues that, while Western media have invited their audiences “to step into the shoes of the victims” (Neofotistos 2016: 2) of Paris, stressing a sense of omnipresent insecurity, Beirut received barely any in-depth attention.

The Micro-Level: Interpersonal Reactions

Consider the following episode recounted by Daniel Psenny, an eyewitness to the November 2015 attacks on the Paris cultural venue Bataclan (McVeigh 2015). Published by British newspaper The Guardian shortly after (source), they make part of the massive public media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

“I was working at home. The TV was on and showing a film in which Jean-Hugues Anglade plays the role of a cop. I heard a noise like firecrackers and at first I was convinced that it was in the film. But the noise was loud, so I went to the window.

“I live on the second floor and my apartment overlooks the emergency exits of the Bataclan. Sometimes there are some evacuations, but then everyone was running from all sides, I saw guys on the floor, blood.

“I saw people falling, there are sounds, noises, the screams, the calls for help. I felt total despair and fear. A woman was clinging to the Bataclan window on the second floor. I thought of the images of September 11.”

It is not the actuality or accuracy of this anecdote that will matter here, much more important I regard the narrative style and the fact that this account was presented and widely distributed in the mainstream media. The style of the piece is mainly, I would argue, marked by identifiability. It is relatively easy to imagine the situation Psenny describes and thus to feel empathy with him. Many people would probably be able to tell a very similar story about working late at home and watching television. The message between the lines however is: Whoever reads this might also get into this situation, some day. Fear is disseminated without intention required.

The very fact that piece of personal, almost intimate narration such as the above received mainstream media attention gives it some considerable, emotionally charged weight. From this moment on, the Paris attacks leave the realm of being ‘just another news item’ and enter that of traumatic memory. Its fixation in time is specifically based on commonality, as I have contended above — a disruption of self is countered with an affective reference to what would otherwise have been an ordinary evening home. An imagery of home under threat is activated, turning the account into a representation that “conflates the speaker with the injured” (Karpiak 2016: 71).

The Meso-Level: National Discourse

As Karpiak (2016) stresses at the example of the French public’s relation with the police, the historically rather distanced relation between the state and its citizens was suddenly disrupted by being interwoven into a transnational counter-terrorism discourse: The Paris trauma turned into a historical fact and was therefore positioned in a linear relationship with the events of 9/11. This contextualisation, of course, carries a range of national implications such as a certain foreign policy stance and domestic security adjustments. France from now on was to be conceived of as a victim of global terrorism, with serious repercussions on the constitution of the domestic sphere. What could before perhaps be characterised as the contentious politics of post-1968 France now moved around a rather homogenising, pro-securitisation discourse. Consider the following excerpt from a speech by French president Hollande delivered before a joint session of the parliament, three days after the attacks (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2015):

“France is at war. The acts committed […] are acts of war. […] They are an act of aggression against our country, against its values, against its young people, and against its way of life. They were carried out by a jihadist army, by Daesh, which is fighting us because France is a country of freedom, because we are the birthplace of human rights.

“[…] In truth, our democracy has triumphed over much more fearsome enemies than these cowardly murderers. Our Republic is under no threat from these despicable killers.”

Multiple narratives overlap: On the one hand, Hollande refers to collective identity much as Psenny did — he emphasises that the attack was aimed at the entirety of the nation, but also adds an distinct note by referring to France’s “way of life” being under threat. A certain existential anxiety plays a key role in the way the president vehemently defends human rights, democracy, and the Republic. On the other hand, a dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is drawn extensively — one side being characterised by freedom, young people, and triumph, while the other is populated by “cowardly murderers” and “despicable killers”.

The Macro-Level: International Responses

Shortly after the November 2015 attacks, leaders from around the globe expressed their condolences with the victims and their solidarity with France. One example is an address by US president Obama delivered on the very day the attacks took place (White House 2015):

“[…] This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share. […]

“Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress. […] We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share. And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening.”

In his speech, Obama explicitly refers to a thread that connects humanity through a shared set of “universal values” and implicitly embeds it within the broader context of their defence in the global ‘war on terror’. On the one hand, he reinforces the role of French national identity by referring to the national triad (in French), on the other hand he makes simultaneously clear that these are in fact, again, “values that we share”. Overall, the international response revolves around one grand theme — international unity. Neofotistos (2016) summed this up as a moment in which “people from all over the world indicated unity and solidarity with the French people and paid tribute to the victims” (Neofotistos 2016: 1).

It is indeed fascinating to observe how the impact of the terrorist attacks in Paris moved from individual, deeply traumatic experiences to nationally formulated responses that aim to reassure a frightened constituency by reference to control, and finally to international solidarities that pick up on both impulses, merging them into a militarised mobilisation of sentiments such as anger, retaliation, or redemption.

Embracing Emotion, Resisting Affect

With the above examples, I have attempted to capture the complexity of the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event such as the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. On all three levels — interpersonally, nationally, and internationally —, the experience swiftly translated from something that is beyond words to a need for collective identifiers and, finally, to part of a broader narrative about global terrorism. In the following, I will bring these observations in touch with the theoretical framework of ontological security and self-Other relations. First, I want to mention a number of consequences that can be derived from understanding trauma as ‘social glue’ in accounts of inter-group relations in both IR and anthropology; second, I will outline possible ways of formulating enhanced policy responses; and third, I will provide some suggestions for future research.

What does it mean to conceive of trauma as a form of reactively emerging ‘social glue’? The corollaries of framing the immediate impact of traumatic events in this way are twofold. First, it bears an important implication for the way collectives of people (communities, societies, nation-states) conceptualise self in relation to and in terms of Other. Self-relation builds on trust, and therefore relies on the ability to accurately assess trustworthiness — trauma longs for a helping hand, for solid ground under one’s feet, hence it longs for stable categories to restore the painful disruption of being. This assumption stretches further, as it also requires conceptualising more clearly whom ‘we’ include in ‘our’ ontology: In an increasingly globalised world, I would argue in line with Kinnvall (2004), we have to cope with a more uncertain reality. One coping strategy could be to render inter-group boundaries more porous in order for them to correspond to the constantly fluctuating reality we live in.

Second, trauma as ‘social glue’ is a form of ontological security. This requires recognising that “security language implies a specific metaphysics of life” (Kinnvall 2004: 744) in which the “structural conditions of insecurity are intimately linked to the emotional significance of identity mobilisation” (ibid.: 745). In other words, security and insecurity are profoundly affected by the interaction of discourse and identification, as the above three examples have demonstrated. This recognition could help on two levels. First, it could help understand Other more profoundly and grasp, to give an example, the spread of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East as part of a more general human tendency to seek refuge in fixation; a tendency which Europeans share, too. Second, it could enhance our ability to detect affect where it distorts social and political decision-making, but also embrace emotion where it could add on to it.

These insights can contribute to important debates that are currently prominent in international politics, broaching suggestions for policy makers as well. For one, increased global mobility has ever more people move from one place to another, be it as expatriates, migrants, or refugees. This challenges local communities and has elicited strong responses, which becomes visible in the rise of anti-immigrant populism in Europe we currently witness. Secondly, in a post-9/11 world, “the distinction between combatant and non-combatant has eroded” (Fierke 2007: 136), which introduces manifold puzzles in the security debate — border controls, surveillance, and other measures collide with a self-perception that strongly emphasises personal freedoms.

Both of these issues require careful balancing acts, which in turn make multidimensional approaches that go beyond mere rational choice ever more urgent. Such a balancing act could start with “taking seriously the emotional aspects of structural insecurities” (Kinnvall 2004: 763), go on to “not take the act of exclusion on security grounds as self-justifying” (Gibney 2002: 42), and ultimately, in the words of Neumann and Welsh (1991), culminate in a proper incorporation of both the logic of raison d’état and the logic of culture.

Thirdly, a number of directions for future research can be indicated. I attempted to produce two main outcomes here. One is the use of anthropological methods in looking at discourse on several levels in order to grasp the rapid genesis of collective identity-markers. This has proven helpful for a deeper understanding of the immediacy of threat that is bound to resonate from a terrorist attack, but it remains limited to a rather synchronic perspective. It would require efforts of more profound historical substantiation to detect the impact of trauma on the diachronic development of national and international discourses.

Another outcome is the contribution of this paper to a growing body of IR literature that rejects considering emotions “in opposition to rationality”, but rather “as forms of appraisal” (Hutchison 2010: 82). The affective emergence and generation of inclinations, intuitions, and even principled decisions needs not only to be researched more profoundly and in more interactive exchange with psychological insights, but also deserves a place in IR theories of statehood, agency, and difference. Reflecting upon the mutual constitution of emotion and reason might suggest self to be “a kind of nexus of tensions between different emotional pulls”, as Solomon does in his reading of Hans Morgenthau’s thoughts on power and love (Solomon 2012: 221). Yet, importantly, it does not contradict classical theories. Rather, it offers some potential to nourish and enrich the understandings with which we have thus far approached the interaction of human beings, groups, and nation-states.

In sum, trauma creates collective identity in its immediate aftermath by establishing references to a commonly felt insecurity, one that is, importantly, based on distinctions between self and Other. This impacts the way we respond to, deal with, and implement such trauma — in discourse, but also in policy making. In a globalised world that faces the transnational security issue of terrorism, the recognition of these linkages, I propose, is a first step necessary for more balanced and less reflexive social and political responses.


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This essay was submitted in 2016 as part of an undergraduate course in International Relations at University College Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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