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Discussion Point: 'Keep Wicked Calm and Carry the Hell On': Boston, Terrorism and the Rhetorical Power of Resilience

Discussion Point: 'Keep Wicked Calm and Carry the Hell On': Boston, Terrorism and the Rhetorical Power of Resilience

June 21, 2013Hamilton Bean and Lisa Keranen

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

On July 6, 2010, START issued a background report on the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 London Transit Attacks. The report examined the degree to which the attacks reflected changing trends in terrorist activity in Great Britain and globally. What was most significant about the attacks, for us, however, was the official and public response that revolved around the concept of "resilience." A community's response to terrorism depends, in part, on the circulation of rhetorical images that synthesize a group's thoughts and feelings toward events, and resilience was a significant term for mobilizing a national response.

As part of our START-supported project, "Textual Analysis of Electronic Media Coverage of Homeland Security-Related Risks," we explained how resilience became the central theme of U.S. and U.K. online news coverage of 7/7. For example, the Prince of Wales commented that what he could "never get over is the resilience of the British people who have set us all a fantastic example of how to react to these kinds of tragedies."1

In our view, such statements actually helped to constitute the British people as a resilient populace. In other words, the behavior of those who survived the London Underground and Tavistock Square attacks could have been explained by reference to "shock" or "trauma," but instead commentators overwhelmingly depicted their behavior as arising from an essentially resilient British character.

Why, how, and with what consequences can a group of people be successfully constituted as resilient in the aftermath of a terrorist attack remains a much-needed focus of research.

The lesson of 7/7 for officials was that resilience could be encoded within U.K. and U.S. security policy to the benefit of citizens.2 Significantly, following 7/7, U.S. officials began to reinterpret previous events such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 through the resilience frame.

For instance, "Resilience is a pillar of our security, and there has been no better example than right here in Oklahoma City," Secretary Napolitano declared during the memorial dedication in 2010.3 In the eight years since the 7/7 attacks, Americans have witnessed the codification of resilience within official U.S. homeland security strategy across contexts ranging from terrorism to pandemic.

We have wondered, however, whether Britain's enduring "Blitz spirit" would be rhetorically equivalent to America's historical Puritan-based "can do" attitude. In a 2011 article related to our START project, we speculated that the form of America's resilience might differ from her transatlantic neighbor's.4

However, as the title of this Discussion Point contribution suggests, the Boston Marathon attacks confirmed resilience's potency and portability (the quote in the title is taken from a popular internet meme that circulated in the aftermath of the Boston attacks that, in Bostonian vernacular, evokes the classic image of British stoicism and resolve). Given that the attacks occurred in New England, we should have anticipated such an outcome.

"Boston," President Obama declared immediately following the attacks, "is a tough, resilient town and so are its people."5 The theme of resilience soon saturated media coverage. Within 24-hours of the blasts, the Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg had written, "There is no satisfactory solution to the problem of mass anonymous violence. As a result, resilience becomes the paramount response. Keeping your wits about you as individuals, as a government and as a culture is what counts."6

In the comments section, a reader replied, "We have our own word for that [resilience] here in New England: Hardiness." "They Picked on the Wrong City," Jim Walsh declared in a headline on Boston's WBUR blog.7 For Walsh, Boston possessed "an inner determination and power that only the foolish ignore."

Literally hundreds of articles and comments reflecting the resilience theme soon followed. Officials, journalists, and citizens overwhelmingly depicted the people of Boston as resilient. The speed with which life has returned to normal for most Bostonians suggests that such consistent and widespread attributions produced their intended effect: Boston (and America writ large) bounced back from a terrorist attack on the homeland.

By contrast, on the same day as the Boston attack, 55 people were killed in a wave of car bombings across Iraq. No attributions of resilience appeared in Western media coverage of those events. Nor were they dominant in characterizations of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.8 Who is deemed resilient? How, exactly, does this occur? What are the psychological, symbolic, and material benefits and risks of such imputations?

These are questions that have interested START investigators, several of whom have pioneered resilience research. Drs. Fran Norris and Betty Pfefferbaum have led efforts to foster community resilience among children, families, and the public. Dr. Monica Schoch-Spana has promoted resilience as part of public health emergency preparedness.

Dr. Ann Bowman has explored the role of state governments in community resilience, while Dr. Nicholas Munson has investigated how school principals can help assess community resilience. Dr. Clark McCauley has expanded of the concept of community resilience to include political resilience, i.e., avoiding the impulse for unnecessary security measures or hastily assigning blame.

We can see that resilience, as a discursive response to real and envisioned catastrophic risk, makes sense in times when uncertainty reigns supreme across complex systems and full-scale protection from large-scale disasters, whether manufactured or naturally occurring, is impossible.9

However, as a discourse, resilience confers both benefits and limitations. Resilience discourse is beneficial in that it can mobilize preparedness and response, encourage a sense of communal unity, and provide resources for moving forward, and yet it can also mask structural inequalities that hamper meaningful bounce-back of vulnerable populations. Additional research is needed to explore how and with what consequence the discourse of resilience is increasingly structuring a wide swath of terrorism preparedness and response.


Hamilton Bean is an Assistant Professor in the Communication Department at the University of Colorado Denver who specializes in organizational communication and national security discourse. Dr. Lisa Keranen is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Communication Department at the University of Colorado Denver, where she studies and teaches rhetorical theory and criticism with an emphasis on the rhetoric of science, medicine and health care.



1 "Prince Charles Visits Victims of London Bombings, Praises Britons' Resilience," July 8, 2005, http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1?110861363.html (accessed May 13, 2011).
2 We note, too, that resilience is also becoming a prominent policy orientation in Japan and other countries, and we acknowledge that the term was in circulation prior to the London bombings. However, its use has steadily increased in the past several years.
3 Janet Napolitano, "Secretary Napolitano's Remarks at Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial," April 19, 2010, http://www.securityinfowatch.com/secretary-napolitanos-remarksoklahoma-city-bombing-memorial (accessed May 2011).
4 Hamilton Bean, Lisa Keranen, and Margaret Durfy, "'This is London': Cosmopolitan Nationalism and the Discourse of Resilience in the '7/7' Terrorist Attacks," Rhetoric and Public Affairs 14.3 (2011): 427-464.
5 Daniel Klaidman, "The Boston Bombings: Resilience vs. Panic," The Daily Beast, April 16, 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/04/16/the-boston-bombings-resilience-vs-panic.html (accessed June 11, 2013).
6 Jeffrey Goldber, "In Boston Attack, the Best Response Is Resiliency," Bloomberg, April 16, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-16/in-boston-attack-the-best-response-is-resiliency.html (accessed June 11, 2013).
7 Jim Walsh, "They Picked on the Wrong City," April 16, 2013, Cognoscenti, http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2013/04/16/boston-resilience-jim-walsh
8 Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski, "Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604 (2006): 57?81.
9 For an insightful analysis of the nature of risk in our contemporary world, see Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 1999).