Overview

The echoes of terror

JONATHON GATEHOUSE September 16 2002
Overview

The echoes of terror

JONATHON GATEHOUSE September 16 2002

The echoes of terror

Overview

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

IT IS AN ANNIVERSARY for which no reminder is needed. For the past year, the day has lurked at the periphery of our imaginations, intruding when we gaze up at tall buildings or a plane flies low overhead. We have felt its insidious influence in the way we look at strangers, the extra consideration in our travel plans, what we think when we see a box cutter left lying on a table. It has been present in our newfound interest in remote places, and our heightened respect for firefighters. And now, as the calendar circles back to the new shorthand for terror—9/11—it is with us more than ever. A cold dread that marks the end of a hot summer, as we pray it won’t happen again.

Remarkably, it took just 102 minutes on a bright, blue morning to make an indelible impression. Four doomed jet-

liners, two landmarks erased, a fortress in flames, 3,025 innocent victims, and a society thrown into disarray. Offices were closed, stores shut their doors, parents took their children out of school—even in communities far removed from Washington, New York and rural Pennsylvania. An attack so unexpected and diabolically successful that nowhere seemed safe. The American response divided the world into friends and foes, with Canadian ground troops joining the fray for the first time in 50 years. Still ahead, the promise of further retribution.

Jennifer Charron has kept her World Trade Center building pass and keys to the studios that used to exist on the north tower’s 91st and 92nd floors. Last year, the Hamilton-born graphic artist was helping organize shows and exhibitions at the

complex, aiding the 25 artists in residence who found inspiration in the view from the top of the city. Charron slept late that morning. She heard about the first jet on the radio, and rushed to her apartment window just in time to see the unthinkable happen again. “I watched this big plane come across the sky and slam into the south tower,” the 30-year-old recalls. “I close my eyes and I can still see it.” Charron spent the rest of the day on the phone trying to account for co-workers, numbed by the thought of how things might have been for her if the terrorists had struck in mid-afternoon. The tragedy became the new raison d’être of the arts organization she worked for, as it struggled to rebuild and help select a fitting memorial to the victims. “You couldn’t get away from it. You were constantly

It took just 102 minutes on a bright, blue morning—and the attacks still reverberate

reminded,” says Charron. Emotionally exhausted, she quit her job and returned to Ontario last spring. “My favourite part of being back in Canada is that I don’t think about it every day,” she says.

IN THE AFTERMATH, it became gospel that our world had been fundamentally altered on Sept. 11, and for weeks the prophecy rang true as grief and shock coloured daily life. Houses of worship were packed, sporting events were cancelled, family became a priority. The effect didn’t last: a year later life is more normal than most of us could have imagined. But the reverberations of an act that much of the world watched unfold on TV continue to be felt at home and abroad.

Rod MacDonald senses them in his work as a firefighter. The 46-year-old

union head is one of almost 400 Vancouver firefighting personnel who have made the pilgrimage to New York to help with relief efforts or pay respects to fallen comrades. “Ground Zero left me speechless in its enormity. Television didn’t capture it,” says MacDonald. “People may not understand how the death of a New York firefighter can so deeply affect someone in Vancouver, but this crossed all lines of decency.” It’s more than the senseless loss of life, he says. Sept. 11 changed the way emergency workers view their jobs. In a career rife with risks, it provided one more element to worry about. “We have tall buildings in Vancouver, areas that are susceptible to attack,” says MacDonald. “We just don’t say, ‘Oh, it won’t happen here’ anymore.”

Shahina Siddiqui feels the aftershocks in

Winnipeg. For her and other members of Manitoba’s small Islamic community, Sept. 11 revealed the poles of hatred and compassion that exist in Canadian society. In the days following the attack, there were threats of retribution, acts of vandalism, and isolated incidents of violence against Muslims. Siddiqui and others despaired and wondered how a small band of fanatical criminals could be taken as representatives of a religion that preaches love and peace. But the vitriol was soon eclipsed by messages of support and requests for information. “It was a really, really good opportunity for us to open doors, start dialogue, fight the fear on both sides,” says Siddiqui.

Still, with the threat of more terror hanging in the air, she worries that the progress could wash away in another wave of anger. Muslims in Canada already feel

the sting of suspicion in their dealings with police, government and fellow citizens, she says. It’s not middle-aged white businessmen who receive the extra scrutiny at airports. “There’s a lot of fear and it’s taking a toll,” says Siddiqui. “We are trying to find an easy solution to a complex problem. Do we really believe that if the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world converted to Christianity tomorrow all terrorism would stop?”

Cpl. Jean-Yves Papineau heard the echoes of Sept. 11 in the gunshots and explosions that punctuated life in Kandahar, Afghanistan. On the morning of the attacks, the 23-year-old combat engineer watched the twin towers crumble from his base in Edmonton, as colleagues scrambled to respond to a threat they weren’t even sure existed yet. Five months later, Papineau and his cohorts arrived at a dusty airfield halfway around the world, knowing little of the challenges before them. “I didn’t know what to expect. We had heard that there were more land mines and unexploded ordnance in that country than anywhere else,” says the explosives specialist. His war on terrorism turned out to consist of long periods of boredom, abominable living conditions, and surreal moments of menace. “It was hard to feel the danger until something happened around you,” says Papineau. Four Canadian soldiers died in a friendlyfire incident in April.

Since their return home in late July, the Edmonton soldiers have been overwhelmed by the public’s gratitude. Papineau isn’t sure the world is any safer because of his time in Afghanistan, but thinks it was a step in that direction. “If you’re chasing the bad guys, keeping them at bay, then they won’t have time to terrorize the public,” he says.

WHEN TIMOTHY MCVEIGH made a twisted statement against his own government in 1995, he chose a nondescript federal office building in a hinterland state. Al-Qaeda’s targets on the morning of Sept. 11,2001, were familiar symbols of American economic, military and (in the case of the downed jet in Pennsylvania presumed to be headed for the White House) political might. But while bin Faden and his fellow terrorists succeeded in instilling fear, how successful were

they in damaging the system they despise?

Initially, economists predicted the worst. The stock market plunged, central banks cut interest rates, business leaders begged for bailouts, and politicians told consumers to fight terror with their pocketbooks. A year later, the American economy is still staggering, but under the burden of more traditional evils—greed and corruption. Overall growth in Canada slowed briefly, but we show no sign of sliding into recession.

Tim O’Neill, chief economist for the Bank of Montreal, was attending a conference at a hotel next to the twin towers on the morning of Sept. 11. The events of the day are fixed in his mind, but don’t appear to be preoccupying investors. “The problems caused by 9/11 were over relatively quickly,” he says. “The only lasting effects seem to be heightened concerns about future attacks, and a level of uncertainty brought about by American sabrerattling over Iraq.” Airlines are struggling to survive, but the industry was in deep

trouble long before Sept. 11, says O’Neill.

The big picture doesn’t tell the whole truth, however. Tourism in Canada, like the rest of the world, declined sharply and still hasn’t fully recovered. Ottawa is spending millions promoting the Great White North south of the border. The ads will feature plenty of Mounties in red serge, “to remind people that we’re a safe destination,” says Jim Watson, CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

More than anything, Sept. 11 exposed how much the Canadian economy relies on free and unfettered access to the United States. The value of cross-border trade between the two countries is $1.9 billion a day. If America shuts down international air travel, stops trucks and trains at its frontier, or keeps ships from entering its ports, Canada feels the pinch. “The challenge is to make sure the border doesn’t become any thicker,” says Bill Robson, director of research for the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto think-tank. Investors and businesses will flock south if they believe their products won’t be able to get to market, he says.

In the past year, Ottawa has taken steps

to keep people and products moving, establishing fast-track procedures for lowrisk goods and travellers, earmarking $646 million for increased border security and surveillance, and giving U.S. Customs and law enforcement an enhanced role on this side of the border. The future appears to demand even greater integration, like the 30-point border management plan hammered out between the two sides. “We’ve always had this ambivalence about being seen to co-operate closely with the U.S. on a political level,” says Robson. “But we’re not entirely in control of our own fate on this front.”

Despite those efforts, many argue Canada has a long way to go before we can assure ourselves and our neighbours that terrorists can’t easily use this country as a staging ground for future attacks. The lineups at airports and border crossings are longer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re safer. Security behind the scenes at busy hubs like Toronto’s Pearson International, and ports in Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver, remains lamentable, according to the recent findings of a parliamentary committee. “I think you’ve

got three distinct bags of snakes—land, air, and sea—each with the capacity to cause horrendous problems,” says Colin Kenny, chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Whether it’s inadequate baggage screening at Pearson, the alarming number of workers at seaports with criminal records, or lightly trained summer students watching the world’s longest undefended border, Canada remains vulnerable. “There’s still a hell of a lot to do,” says Kenny.

The federal government’s other responses to the new global reality have also come under fire. The omnibus AntiTerrorism Act made it a crime to aid or fund groups Ottawa identifies as terrorist organizations, expanded police wiretapping powers and gave officers the right to make “preventive arrests.” Immigration and refugee policy has been tweaked, and changes are in the works to dozens of other acts. Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says many of the new laws

threaten fundamental freedoms. “The unilateral actions of the government can make a person a virtual pariah,” he says, noting that innocent Canadians can be misidentified as terrorists. The CCLA is calling for the creation of a civilian watchdog to audit how law enforcement officials use their new powers.

But according to David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the people who fight terror already face too many constraints. Harris, who claims that at least 50 radical groups are operating in Canada, says politicians are unwilling to take the tough measures necessary to stop the problem. Overworked security officials can’t hope to thoroughly screen the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, refugees and foreign visitors who arrive every year. “We seem bent on setting ourselves up for a catastrophe,” says Harris. “Canada is an easy mark.”

THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY will be observed with countless memorials, public and private. Rod MacDonald and his colleagues will march through the streets of Vancouver, observe two minutes of silence, then listen to a band play Amazing Grace. Shahina Siddiqui will join the mayor of Winnipeg and other dignitaries for an interfaith service. Jennifer Charron will make a memory box for her keys, building pass and other “insignificant reminders” of the vanished people she used to brush by in the concourse, or share an elevator with.

One year ago, for a few weeks, our newly discovered vulnerability bound us together, crossing borders, rejecting divisions of class, religion and race. People opened their homes to stranded travellers, donated money, sought out their own connections to a televised tragedy. Ultimately, “everything” didn’t change, but it’s impossible to argue our world is the same as it was on Sept. 10, 2001. “It’s a weird feeling,” Charron says of the giant clearing that now exists at the WTC site. “There’s a place that you know so well, but you can’t go back, because it doesn’t exist anymore.” A sensation of loss and emptiness that extends much further than the confines of lower Manhattan. lifi