On September 20, 2011, nine days after the United States experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history and the worst act of violence on U.S. soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President George W. Bush called a Joint Session of Congress to talk about how his administration planned to respond. In his eight years as President of the United States, Bush's September 20 speech was perhaps the best he ever delivered: it had the intended effect of unifying the country at a time of incredible fear, when Americans were very legitimately wondering when (not if) Al-Qaeda would attack civilians again. The death of nearly 3,000 people shocked the U.S. national security bureaucracy to such an extent that old assumptions about terrorism were no longer operable -- something dramatic needed to occur to defend the nation from further terrorist attacks, and the United States had to retaliate in order to ensure that Osama bin Laden got the message.
As history now reveals, that speech in front of a packed house on Capitol Hill was the beginning of a complete sea-change in how the United States fought the scourge of international terrorism. It would come to define the entire presidency of George W. Bush. Indeed, 9/11 spurred the most controversial policies of the Bush era: domestic surveillance powers would be enhanced under the USA Patriot Act; preventive war would become a central part of the U.S. national security discourse; a prison called Guantanamo Bay would be established to house the Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and far more stringent interrogation methods would be required to get information quickly.
French President Francois Hollande is experiencing his own 9/20 moment. Like the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. that shocked the entire country and the conscience of the world, the coordinated and synchronized terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 that claimed the lives of 129 people has brought one of the world's most iconic cities to absolute grief. And, like President George W. Bush on September 20, President Francois Hollande suddenly finds himself with all eyes upon him -- a development that he surely has come to realize when he chose to address both houses of the French parliament for only the third time in over 100 years.
There should be no question in anyone's mind that the Paris attacks last weekend have forced the entire country and the nation's leaders to reassess the scope of the terrorism problem, the absolute terror and brutalization that the Islamic State represents, and France's role in countering international terrorism more broadly. President Hollande's statement to the French people and to the parliament that the Paris attacks were "acts of war" committed on the entire nation is an apt illustration of just how devastating ISIL's assault was to the country's psyche.
Yet, ISIL would be severely mistaken if they thought last weekend's events would scare the French to stay home, lock their doors, and pull out of the counter-ISIL coalition. Indeed, the attacks are doing the exact opposite: Hollande is preparing his country for war.
France will need to get more involved in kinetic strikes from the air, and they will once again be tasked with taking a leadership role on a European continent that has been struggling to balance the priorities of safeguarding their people from acts of terrorism and caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing a terrible war.
Just as 9/11 created a political climate in the United States that allowed the Bush administration to push through an expansive counterterrorism program through the U.S. Congress on a bipartisan basis, the 11/13 strikes in Paris will provide President Hollande with an opportunity to create and implement anti-terrorism measures that would have faced resistance under more peaceful circumstances. If the assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last January convinced the French parliament to support a vastly expanded surveillance package (one that essentially gives the Prime Minister unilateral authority to authorize unhindered surveillance on a suspected individual or target), it is difficult to see how the far deadlier attack on six locations in Paris would not present the French Government with an even better argument for more security powers.
The temporary, three-month extension of France's State of Emergency is only the start of what will be a concerted campaign by President Hollande to improve the counterterrorism capabilities of the French authorities. Indeed, Hollande will attempt to create a security system that will unquestionably rub civil libertarians in France the wrong way.
A French proposal to revoke the citizenship of dual-national French citizens who commit or support terrorism is a reasonable measure to consider. But others that Hollande is seeking to entrench in the constitution would be more controversial -- including speeding up the deportation of foreigners who are considered a threat to national security and preventing French citizens who may have been involved in terrorism from re-entering the country -- will inevitably raise concerns among more civil liberty-minded quarters in the French political class that France is sacrificing too many freedoms for the sake of security. Hollande's call to embed these new security measures as constitutional amendments would essentially ensure that they are permanent: revoking them at a later date would require yet another constitutional amendment.
The task for Hollande, like the task for President Bush fourteen years ago, is to persuade the people who elected him that something much more drastic needs to happen if France is to adapt to the terrorism threat.