Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 2, 2009

Memorializing the Victims of Terrorism: An Overview of the Literature[1]

By Rina Egbo, Research Assistant, Research and Statistics Division


Given the current global landscape, the needs of victims of terrorism are now, more than ever, receiving wider attention. Specific focus has been given to the justice-related needs of victims, as well as their psychological, emotional, economic, and health needs post victimization. Among these, is the need to remember and pay tribute to the victims of terrorism. The goal of this research project was to better understand the various issues associated with memorializing the victims of terrorism. This article is based on a scan of Canadian and international academic literature on memorializing the victims of terrorism and presents the different ways in which victims may be memorialized as well as some key policy implications and considerations related to memorializing the victims of terrorism.

Several key questions guided the literature review, including the following:

This article focuses on the definitions and context of terrorism, understanding memorials, the different types of memorials, and the issues raised.

A Note on Method

This article is the result of a literature review that was compiled during the summer of 2008. The research was undertaken through the standard practices associated with composing a literature review. Research articles were drawn primarily from academic journals acquired through online academic databases and internet searches going back twenty years. Given the limited Canadian scholarship documenting the ways victims of terrorism have been memorialized, media sources were also utilized to obtain information. Overall, more than fifty academic sources were consulted for this project. A significant proportion of this literature was drawn from social science journals, the majority of which were based on cultural studies and anthropological research. Other journal areas included social science research on victim issues, as well as some legal scholarship regarding terrorism.

Definitions and the Canadian Context

A vital step toward establishing the ways in which Canadian victims of terrorism can be memorialized is to first identify the definition and context of terrorism in Canada. In general, the academic literature shows that there is no particular definition that stands as the “correct” definition of terrorism. Rather, research points to the fact that scholars generally agree that the term is somewhat indefinable, and when it is definable, it is also highly malleable (Staiger et al. 2008; Fletcher 2006; Weinberg et al. 2004). Although there are challenges establishing a sociological definition of terrorism, the legal field has witnessed some consistency in the way terrorism has been defined in law, both within and between Western democratic states. Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union all incorporate elements of fear, violence, and intimidation in their legislative definitions. In addition, each nation identifies politics, religion, and the need to influence governments as among the primary attributes of terrorist acts.

Like the definition of terrorism, significant attention has also been devoted to explaining the different kinds and types of terrorism. In general, research shows that there are basic forms of terrorism, including both international and domestic terrorism (Staiger et al. 2008; Gough 2007).

However, each basic form is also comprised of other sub-types that largely inform their basis. According to Grob-Fitzgibbon (2005), terrorism can be broken down into the following four broad forms:

  1. national terrorism – terrorist activities involving national borders;
  2. revolutionary terrorism – activities aimed at the philosophical and political nature of government;
  3. reactionary terrorism – activities concerned with preventing societal and governmental changes; and
  4. religious terrorism – where violence is used to further religious objectives.

Staiger et al. (2008) also include vigilante terrorism and single-issue terrorism among the important forms of terrorism.

Given the social, political, and cultural environment in which terrorism is often based, efforts have also been made to contextualize the experiences of terrorism in different countries. In Canada, this research has been scarce; however, two notable studies in this area are those conducted by Ross and Gurr (1989), and Leman-Langlois and Brodeur (2005). In their 1989 comparative analysis of political terrorism in Canada and the United States, Ross and Gurr established that there were roughly 500 politically motivated terrorist events that occurred in Canada between 1960 and 1985 (85 percent of which were domestic). Concerned with identifying the reasons behind the decrease in terrorism in Canada, the authors cite pre-emption, deterrence, backlash, and burnout as the primary reasons behind the drop in domestic political terrorism in Canada. The second study presents a contemporary analysis of terrorism in Canada. Utilizing more than 400 terrorist situations that occurred in Canada between 1973 and 2003, the authors developed different classifications of terrorism (Leman-Langlois and Brodeur 2005). The different classifications include acts of vandalism by particular rights-based groups, acts of arson such as those committed by the members of the Doukhobor “Sons of Freedom,” and acts of intimidation such as the 1986 Canadian incident in which a bomb was placed in a Canadian Immigration Centre.

Based on the authors' classifications, terrorism in Canada has been governed by the following four underlying rationales:

  1. demand based terror – activities geared towards a perceived problem;
  2. private justice terror – activities with the intent of attaining retribution;
  3. revolutionary terror – terror aimed at changes at the state level; and
  4. restoration terror – activities aimed at re-establishing a historical condition.

Regarding the current face of terrorism in Canada, the authors stipulate that the Canadian context of terrorism is now more than ever, marked by transnational terrorism, ambiguous ownership of terrorist activities, and the link between religiously and politically motivated terrorist activities. It should be noted however, that although this classification attempts to explain the Canadian experience of terrorism, it cannot be construed as exhaustive. As Staiger et al. (2008) note, the presence of multiple forms of terrorism makes it inherently difficult to lay claims regarding the identification of all types of terrorism within a given context. Nonetheless, there are certain violent events that have been recognized and cited as Canadian terrorist events because they occurred in Canada or because Canadian citizens were victimized as a result of the events.

One event that has received attention from the media, the federal government, and the general Canadian public is the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. Described as one of the worst cases of Canadian terrorism, the bombing took the lives of 389 people, 280 of which were Canadian citizens. Other examples of terrorism involving Canadian victims include the Bali nightclub bombings, the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th, and the criminal acts of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). These events and others are part of the general impetus behind the need to memorialize the victims of terrorism.

According to Hill (2004, 83), victimization through terrorism may be experienced at direct, secondary, and community levels; all of which may vary in terms of the extent and kind of victimization. Although there are many issues associated with victimization following terrorist events, trauma has been identified as among the most critical issues victims may face (Miller 2003; Updegraff et al. 2008). Issues particular to victims of terrorism under the broad spectrum of trauma include post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, and survivors' guilt (Hill 2004). In addition to issues related to trauma, Shichor (2007) distinguishes the public response to victims of terrorism as an important area in victimological studies of victimization through terrorism. According to the author, victims of terrorism are more likely than other victims of crime to receive sympathy from the public. In addition, Shichor (2007, 277) stipulates that victims of terrorism are also less likely to be stigmatized and labelled “weak” as a result of their victimization and are thereby free of the negative psychological effects associated with such a label. Overall, there are many issues to consider when addressing the victims of terrorism. Memorializing these victims may be one way to address the issues related to their victimization; however, this tactic may benefit from some consideration of the ways memorialization can be used to assist in the healing process, but also of the ways in which it may contribute to further traumatization and revictimization of victims.

Understanding Memorials

Today, memorials occupy a permanent position in the landscape of many nations. By definition, memorials have been described as spaces “invested with meaning” that are set aside to remember (Doka 2003, 186). In devising a definition of the term “memorial,” researchers have been noting that care must be taken to avoid the incorrect use of the term “memorial” in place of the term “monument” (Gough 2002). According to Gough (2002), what differentiates the two terms is the intent of preserving and remembering that is accompanied with memorializing, while monuments usually project celebratory sentiments. As a process, memorializing is marked by activities and actions done to mourn and remember people, places, and things of importance in society. As Foot et al. (2006, 72) note, these practices provide the opportunity for people to “celebrate the lives of those who died, to mourn their passing, and to inscribe memories of the deceased in the public consciousness.”

As a relatively recent endeavour, there is little doubt that memorializing the victims of terrorism is a complex process. The scarce research that does exist in the area depicts the process of memorialization as highly contentious. First, research highlights that a contributing factor to the complexity of the memorialization process is the presence of numerous stakeholders (Britton 2007; Couch et al. 2008). Some of the stakeholders involved in one way or another in the memorialization process are victims, victims' families, victims' associations, the public, religious organizations, and community groups/associations. In addition, city officials, politicians, and various governmental units at the national, regional, and local levels also serve as critical stakeholders involved in the memorialization process. Amid the extensive presence of numerous stakeholders in the memorialization process, the literature overwhelmingly stresses the critical role victims and victims' families can and should play regarding the development of memorials honouring the lives lost to acts of terrorism (Britton 2007; Berman and Brown 2002; Hoffman and Kasupski 2007).

Research shows, however, that victims and victims' families are often faced with competing influences from other groups involved in the memorialization process (Britton 2007). In her analysis of commemorative activities in the United States, Britton highlights the various roles stakeholders may play in the commemorative process. According to Britton (2007), stakeholders have various levels of influence and control over the memorialization process. Of note are the “gatekeepers” whom the author asserts are the public agents and government officials focused on regulating the “production and reception” of memorials (Britton 2007). Deconstructing the ways narratives feature in the memorial process may provide an opportunity to identify how and for what purposes control is exercised and may also signify the role, or lack thereof, victims and victims' families play in the memorialization process.

Citing Schwartz (1998) and Langer (1998), Damphouse et al. (2003) identify narratives as stories that are used to (in)directly influence the collective support needed to successfully establish memorials for tragic events. More precisely, the authors express support for the argument that such narratives normally convey major or minor messages regarding the event in question. Major narratives include progressive and redemptive themes, while minor narratives are those represented primarily through dogmatic, toxic (narratives focused on the pain associated with remembering) and patriotic themes (Damphouse et al. 2003). Other research has focused on the ways in which politics feature in the production and presentation of narratives. In addition, some scholars contend that memorials related to terrorism and other hostile activities are often reflective of nation- and state-based narratives regarding war and security (Shay 2005; Doss 2008).

Another issue associated with memorial narratives is the multiple meanings regarding terrorism that emerge in their production. For example, research shows that meanings about “victim” and “victimhood” sometimes become critical areas where memorialization is concerned. In their research on the commemoration of the Northern Ireland Troubles,[2] Graham and Whelan (2007) argue that contested meanings of victimhood can often emerge as people struggle to differentiate amongst the various kinds of victims (i.e., victims of state violence versus victims of terrorist actions). The authors stipulate that as a result of this, a “hierarchy of victimhood” becomes prevalent in the memorialization process, thereby perpetuating the fragmentation of consensus regarding the establishment of memorials, especially where diverse groups are involved (2007, 483). Hite (2007) presents a similar case regarding the memorialization of victims of terrorism in Peru. At issue was the fact that some individuals were calling for a national memorial that would also acknowledge the supposed and suspected perpetrators of terrorist events in Peru. For the opponents of this position, such forms of recognition at the memorial site undermined the experiences of the victims and their loved ones and, hence, should not have been suggested in the first place. Overall, the studies discussed above illustrate the significance in deconstructing the ways narratives are featured within memorial processes, and they stress the need to address such issues in the planning process of prospective memorials.

Types of Memorials and Issues Raised

Research indicates that physical memorials are among the most common ways victims of terrorism and terrorist-type events have been memorialized (Shipley 1987; Gough 2007). Research also indicates that there are many issues to address when physical memorials are being considered as a viable option for memorializing victims. One issue is the role geography and location play in the memorialization process. For example, Rankin (2003) notes that sites are highly influenced by social processes. Under such processes, locations and places become susceptible to imposed meanings and in turn generate social meaning, and as such, prospective locations of physical memorials require significant consideration. Given their public nature, they are prime sites through which particular narratives and messages may be expressed (Gough 2007; Nevins 2005). Technical and logistical issues can also pose challenges to the memorialization process. Design, location, costs, and maintenance of physical memorials are also vital to the successful establishment of memorials for victims of terrorism (Rigney 2008; Gough 2004).

Another way that victims may be memorialized is through government responses and statements regarding particular events. “Memorializing” is constituted by the intent to remember and preserve the memory of victims of traumatic and tragic events (Foot et al. 2006); as such, government statements and responses that speak directly to these sentiments may be seen as a forum through which remembrance can be encouraged. More importantly, they provide opportunities for the open and national recognition of experiences of victims of terrorism—a need expressed by the family members of the victims of Air India Flight 182 (Minister of Public Works and Government Services 2008). Commissions and inquiries regarding terrorist events can also be included under this form of memorialization. In addition to fostering the public recognition of particular terrorist events, commissions and inquiries also demonstrate to victims, their families, and the general public a government's commitment towards addressing the various needs of victims of terrorism.

Akin to government statements, the establishment of remembrance days honouring the memory of victims of terrorism affirms the public and state-based recognition of the experiences of victims. In addition, days of remembrance encourage the repeated rituals of recognition, lending salience to particular interpretations of events which then influence and shape societal thinking about similar events or issues. A notable example of such a day is the Canadian national Remembrance Day, November 11th , on which the lives and service of Canadian troops are called to memory. There are many current examples of days that have been established by governments as days to reflect on terrorist events and honour the lives lost or affected through those events. On the twentieth anniversary of the Air India bombing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that June 23rd would be the official day to remember the victims of terrorism (Public Safety Canada 2005). In the European Union, March 11th is the day to remember the victims of terrorism. As for official days of remembrance in the United States, there are no “official,” national days memorializing their major terrorist events (i.e., the World Trade Center attack of September 11th, 2001, and the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19th, 1995); however, the anniversaries of these events are marked throughout the country to greater and lesser degrees. Although days of remembrance can contribute significantly towards promoting healing for victims of terrorism,  research shows that  their overall success lies, at least in part, with the extent to which victims are remembered in a capacity that reflects the severity of the event in question (Stone 2000). In other words, the quality of the activities and events used to mark particular days of remembrance is just as significant as the existence of the day.

Along with the quality of activities, research also indicates that groups and organizations play a significant role in the memorialization process (Couch et al. 2008). In particular, they have a real impact in the selection of memorial sites, funding for the development and maintenance of memorials, and most importantly, advocating for and expressing the various memorial-related needs of victims and others affected by terrorist events (Shipley 1987; Couch et al. 2008). In Canada, there are several examples of victims' groups, organizations, and/or associations that have incorporated memorializing victims of terrorism as part of their mandates. One prominent example is the Air India Victims Families Association. The association has been credited as one of the main forces behind the Air India inquiry through which families were provided with opportunities to share and present stories and memories of their deceased loved ones. Another example is the Canadian Coalition Against Terror. Although the group's primary objective is to enhance Canadian counterterrorism policies, several key members of the group have been very vocal in the push for the establishment of a national memorial honouring the Canadian victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks (Edwards 2008).

Based on the examples above, it is evident that groups and organizations can be useful resources to individuals seeking to memorialize the victims of terrorism. Research also highlights that groups and organizations can pose a challenge to the memorialization process, especially in the instances where multiple groups and organizations are working towards the same end, but are guided by opposing or differing objectives (Couch et al. 2008). As an unfortunate side effect, the voices of victims may become displaced and obscured in the memorialization process (Graham and Whelan 2007).

Finally, victims of terrorism can also be memorialized through spontaneous memorials. Examples of spontaneous memorials include impromptu shrines, roadside memorials, and memorial walls (Thomas 2006). Research shows that in addition to providing the public with opportunities to memorialize the victims of terrorism, the unregulated nature of spontaneous memorial sites also provides a space through which citizens can critique their governments, especially in regards to the events being memorialized (Santino 2006; Yocom 2006; Margry and Sanchez-Carretero 2007). Interestingly, it has also been argued that governments' reactions towards social commentary presented at spontaneous memorial sites may also serve as affirmations of governmental power and control over the public domain (Thomas 2006). There are also other issues that may emerge during and after the spontaneous memorialization process. Some of these issues involve logistical challenges such as the moment at which to remove spontaneous memorials sites, public safety, and the public response(s) towards unauthorized memorial schemes on public sites.

These issues should be considered in context of the benefits associated with utilizing spontaneous memorials. According to Senie (2006), as a form of democratic action, spontaneous memorials carry important personal responses and public commentary that should be considered in the memorialization process. Given the fact that national memorials are designed to honour victims while promoting healing within society, spontaneous memorials can offer the opportunity to identify some of the sentiments citizens may like to see being reflected in national memorials.

Conclusion and Considerations

Overall, there are many issues to consider when examining the ways in which to memorialize victims of terrorism. To begin, in order to effectively gauge the policy considerations associated with memorializing Canadian victims of terrorism, further Canadian research is needed on the current ways victims of terrorism have been memorialized. Beyond this task, several implications can be drawn from the Canadian and international research that already exists. First, it is important to consider the implicit and explicit messages linked to particular memorial schemes. Since the presence of narratives will be a constant feature of memorial schemes, it is critical that the messages within these narratives are identified so as to prevent the revictimization of victims, their loved ones, and the general public. Second, logistical issues such as the location, costs, maintenance, and management of memorials are critical components of the memorialization process. As such, any effective memorial scheme must also consider both the short-term and long-term logistical needs. Finally, the research overwhelmingly stresses the need to address the presence of multiple voices in the memorialization process. Although victims may take precedence here, it is also important that the roles of various stakeholders be considered not only in terms of the ways they may impede the memorial process, but also the ways in which they can effectively contribute towards the goal of truly memorializing the victims of terrorism.