By and large, they were hoping for a fun weekend out, unwinding from a tough week or catching a long-awaited gig. So relaxed were many that when they heard the first shots, they thought it was part of the performance.
Only later did they realize they were in the sights of a semi-automatic weapon, victims of some of the worst violence their respective nations had ever faced: the deadliest mass shooting in US history and the deadliest evening on French soil since World War II. Both were carried out in the name of the self-declared Islamic State.
The similarities between the mass shooting at the gay club Pulse in Orlando late Saturday night that ended 50 lives, and the Bataclan concert hall, cafes, and bars around Paris that took 130 on a Friday night last November, are chilling. The British tabloid The Sun described the Orlando attack on its front page as “America’s Bataclan.”
At the Bataclan today, which is barricaded behind scaffolding, the shooting brought back raw memories. “When I heard what happened in Orlando I felt the same suffocation as I did last November,” says Dorothee Boissier, a French teacher from Marseille visiting the Bataclan, she says, “to pray.”
And now as the US moves to heal, it faces the inevitable debate about the balance between freedom and safety. But it can also learn from the experiences of France as it comes to terms with a direct attack on its values and way of life: Young people were once again killed for having fun.
Anne Deysine, a professor at the University of Paris Nanterre who specializes in legal and political issues in the US, says with the Orlando attack, and the San Bernardino and Boston Marathon attacks before that, the US is moving from external terrorism – like 9/11 – to internal terrorism. “It resembles what we have been seeing in Europe for several years now. It’s the end of a feeling of a sense of security in the US, that US territory is safe.”
There are, of course, major differences between what happened in Florida this weekend and the threat Europe faces, access to guns being among the most glaring. Terrorists here, like those behind the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in January 2015 in France, have had to rely on their networks from abroad to get weapons to carry out their attacks, says Ms. Deysine. In the case of Pulse, shooter Omar Mateen was able to legally purchase the guns he used to kill.
That represents a greater vulnerability for the US. Though Mr. Mateen may have been inspired by the Bataclan attack, security analysts believe he was likely a lone actor, as opposed to an IS attack organized from the top like the Paris attack. And his attack shows how a lone actor can prepare for violence without communications or actions from abroad getting picked up by intelligence services.
Demand for more security
Already the US is asking what security needs to be implemented to keep such venues safe in the future – and France’s experience can provide a roadmap of what to expect.
Demand for consulting services and safety equipment spiked in France after Nov. 13, says Heiko Dethier, a former French marine and interior ministry consultant who now runs FAE, a risk management company in Paris. He says his company’s revenue increase by 250 percent in 2015 and by the first semester of 2016 had already outpaced the revenue for all of last year.
It was widely understood that soft targets such as cafes and bars can never be fully protected. Several national security directives were published days after the November attacks for official establishments in case of mass killings, Mr. Dethier says.
But private businesses and establishments were left to decide for themselves what level of security they wanted to implement, depending on their industry. “The retail or entertainment sector won't need the same security measures as the manufacturing sector,” he says.
Today bag checks and body searches are routine throughout Paris, whether entering a department store or attending a sporting event. But most of the security overhaul came from the top, with a state of emergency that allows police searches in homes or businesses under suspicion of terrorism, the deployment of 10,000 soldiers seen daily throughout France, and greater online surveillance to detect and stop radicalization.
'We live with it'
Through it all, French society has struggled to know how far to go.
Marc Hecker, a terrorism expert at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, says the flurry of activity “does beg the question: ‘At what point have we gone too far?’” he says. “No action is 100 percent foolproof. We see this with what happened in Orlando. Often, the US is put up on a pedestal as the model of security and surveillance – the best in the world – and [Omar Mateen] managed to slip through the cracks.”
Dethier says while governments in both Europe and the US respond to the threats they have seen, they are not focused on the possibility of other kinds of attacks, including by chemical or biological weapons.
“Since the attacks, France has decided to reinforce security measures but it is only focused on threats by firearms and not threats in more global terms. A lot of security detection materials have been installed quickly but people don’t necessarily know how to use them.”
Ms. Deysine doesn’t think that France is definitely safer now, amid new security measures. “It’s reassuring, it’s comforting to lots of people but nothing we do [on that front] can change the situation. There’s always going to be a risk,” she says.
Perhaps the best thing the US can learn from Europe is coming to terms with a new reality, she adds. “In Europe, we’ve come to accept this type of thing. We’ve had these large-scale terrorist attacks since 1999. We live with it.”
That’s what Ms. Boissier, the teacher, says is the key to moving forward, for the US, France, and any society threatened by terrorism. “To fight back, we must go on,” she says. “We knew they would strike again, and we know they will strike again. But we can’t let terrorists decide how we are going to live.”
The US ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley, said France and the US will stand together. “Just as America stood with France after last year’s terrorist attacks, we greatly appreciate France’s expression of support for America in these sad hours,” she said in a statement this afternoon. “France was resilient and steadfast following the 2015 attacks, and the United States will be resilient now.”