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Don't Forget the Role of Public Administration in the Charlie Hebdo Debate

02/03/2015 04:59 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT

The recent shootings of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris sparked vigorous debate on the protections and/or limits of free speech. Yet while democracy and rights are justifiably central topics in the wake of extreme events with political implications, a third area is often ignored in such post-crisis fray: public administration. Surely the appropriate role of public administrators -- from police to city officials to high level bureaucrats -- who respond, recover from, and hopefully plan for, an event like the Hebdo shootings is an important component of liberal democracy along with elected representatives and rights legislation.

Managing a similar event in Canada, for example, would be as complex as any heated blogosphere debate on the right to expression. First, there's what disaster researcher Thomas Drabek has called 'organized-disorganization.' Agencies may be relatively well organized internally, but when they all get together under crisis their coordination amongst themselves is a haphazard affair. Thus the rise of a central 'emergency measures organization' (EMO) that, while not playing a particular instrument, aims to conduct the symphony. EMOs are essential to effective disaster management, and some are better than others. Was there a version of an EMO with a bird's eye view involved in Paris as police and emergency personnel responded? What about when two separate police forces guarded Parliament Hill during the recent Ottawa shooting? This country, with three levels of robust government often feisty about protecting their respective turfs, should be hyper-sensitive to potential 'org-disorg.'

Second, there's the misunderstanding of how people act under immediate crisis. Despite what the regrettable omnipresence of American cable news shows might tell you, people generally don't freak out. Case studies ranging from theatre fires to events as extreme as the Hiroshima atom bombing demonstrate that the vast majority of people keep their heads and do the best they can to keep loved ones safe. Only when people sense immediate danger, no avenue for escape, and a loss of social support do they panic. If agencies are not able to remedy the first two, then they can try and create channels of social support to prevent alarm (official social media that reach disaster victims, guided by policies worked out ahead of time, may be able to do just this). The relative cool headedness of the 2010 Chilean miners stuck underground for sixty-nine days with constant support from the outside world is a case in point.

Third, minimizing the clogging of escape routes from a danger zone isn't so much a problem -- indeed, evacuation rates are lower than generally assumed -- as is getting people outside that zone to stay out. A common phenomenon observed by disaster sociologists is the way people and resources converge into a disaster site in order to help. Although there are positive elements to this phenomenon, such as those who drove into the remnants of Hurricane Katrina to provide assistance and those who rushed to the downed soldier's aid recently in Ottawa, convergence often does create the dual problem of having more people in danger while diminishing the ability to coordinate a response. Such convergence -- like the remarkable absence of wide-ranging looting -- is more likely in a natural disaster than a crisis event of violent conflict, but it is nevertheless something that deserves preparation.

Finally, and this does bring us back to democracy and rights, most people tend to experience a surge of solidarity with their community after a disastrous event. The trick is to have that 'community' transcend any particular, narrowly-defined group of people. As the overwhelming show of national solidarity after the recent Ottawa shootings demonstrate (and this in a country with many complex identities), liberal democracies can initiate civic solidarity quite well. The aftermath of the Hebdo shootings, however, paints a slightly different picture. Paris filled to the brim with pro-free speech marches, but they did not generate the type of near universal solidarity seen in Canada. Some -- especially Parisian suburban -- communities appeared to feel psychologically distant from the collective response.

The shying away from liberal and democratic political institutions is concerning from a disaster management perspective. Research on tornado impacts in the American south of the 1950s found that those communities where hospitals refused to admit African-Americans struggled to gain resiliency and return to normal functioning post-disaster compared to tolerant communities. The deeper the divisions in society, the less it is able to cope with adverse unexpected events. There is a practical reason for this: dealing with crisis almost always requires pooling resources. This reality is important for political debates, but also for EMOs, police forces and emergency personal -- our public administrators -- as they do the actual work of planning for, responding to, and recovering from crises. How they do their work may, in fact, impact the nature of the Twitter debate the day after.

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