Elite Panic

by Guy Cools

When I arrived in Paris last Sunday, Jan 11, in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and the largest public manifestation of solidarity in France since the liberation at the end of WWII, I was struck by the calmness and serenity that both the city and its people radiated.

I only experienced this once before, during and immediately after the London bombings of July 7, 2005 when I was much closer to its epicentre, in the “eye of the hurricane”. I was supposed to be on the tube when the first explosions happened and we actually heard the blast when the last bomb went off on the bus, which was only a couple of hundred metres away from The Place, where we were in a meeting. I was in London to work on zero degrees, the epic collaboration of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan, which became through the synchronicity of events a contemporary lamentation for the victims of the attack.

In A Paradise Built in Hell: Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, author Rebecca Solnit describes, with a lot of factual details and deep insights what I experienced in both London and Paris: how huge disasters like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster bring out in their immediate response, the best in people: spontaneous actions of self-organization, generosity and solidarity across any traditional divides of class or ethnicity.  Her examples range from the Halifax explosion over to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But she also warns of what disaster specialists call “elite panic”: how the ruling powers often create, a more profound and long-lasting second disaster, destroying the potential for change through this spontaneous birth of “civil society” in an attempt to reinstall their control and power.

This is how she summarizes reactions after both 7/7 and 9/11.

“It was a national disaster in the sense that people across the country were drawn into an intensified present of questioning, openness, altruism, a pause from which many conclusions might have been reached, many directions taken. In a strange way, a lot of people valued the sense of urgency, solidarity and depth.” (Solnit, p. 221)


“Once they gathered their wits, the Bush administration’s most urgent campaign was not to take America back from terrorists but from its citizens.” (Solnit, p. 226)

Let’s hope the French and European politicians come to different conclusions (although today’s headlines are already not very optimistic about this) and instead of trying to suppress the “civil society” that spontaneously came together last Sunday, they will further stimulate and build on it.

Guy Cools, Paris 2015

Dr. Guy Cools is a dance dramaturg and has been the past year’s Associate Professor for dance studies at the research institute Arts in Society of the Fontys School of Fine and Performing Arts in Tilburg, Holland and at Ghent University, where he finished a practice-based PhD on the relationship between dance and writing. Having previously worked as dance critic, artistic programmer and policy maker for dance in Flanders, he is now dedicating himself to production dramaturgy, contributing to work by choreographers all over Europe and Canada. He also regularly lectures and publishes, and has developed a series of workshops that aim to support artists and choreographers in their creative process. His most recent publications include the Body:Language series (published by Sadler’s Wells, London) and The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (published by Valiz, Amsterdam).

One thought on “Elite Panic”

  1. Guy, thank you for the chance to observe through you two interesting facets of humanity. Hopefully, those “running” things can begin to understand that often things work well when people are left to respond to truth and reality.
    Be safe in your travels.
    Tom Best.

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