September 11, 2001
Memories of a Times reporter
I wasn’t one of the millions whose first reaction was to ask “why?” I already knew the answer.
I had been covering terrorism in Canada for The New York Times for the past two years, part of a team around the world working for investigations editor Steve Engelberg. The New York Times was one of the last newspapers to invest heavily in investigative reporting. Its explanatory reporting on terrorism would eventually earn it another Pulitzer. The newspaper had already been building a file on would-be Algerian terrorists for a year before Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the United States with explosives to blow up Los Angeles airport in 1999. In the wake of Ressam’s bumbled bombing, no other news outlet in the world could match the depth of our coverage.
There ought to have been no surprise. The warning signs were already there. Montreal police convened a news conference to highlight a new phenomenon which they dubbed gangsterrorisme. They had uncovered a group of thugs who were intimidating Montreal’s Algerian community and engaged in theft and other crime. The police criminal intelligence branch told reporters that the Algerians had terrorist links: They were more than petty crooks, but they were not full-blown professional terrorists. Something never before seen was afoot.
Montreal news outlets rewarded that pre-9/11 attempt at openness by branding police as racists who didn’t understand foreigners and poverty. Subsequent events, though, proved that they had identified a new kind of threat, one that had been attempting to cow and co-opt law-abiding members of the Montreal Algerian community.
Canada nonetheless suffered on September 11, 2001, at the hands of murderers who did not care what nationality, faith or gender they robbed of life. They killed 24 Canadians that day, including Quebecers Michael Arczynski, Cynthia Connolly, Colin McArthur, Michel Pelletier, Deborah Lynn Wiliams and recently married Merideth Ewart & Peter Feidelberg. American Frank Joseph Doyle, who also perished that day, was married to Kimmie Chedel of St. Sauveur.
After the planes struck, while other newspapers launched counter terrorist diatribes, Steve Engelberg’s direction to The New York Times’ investigative team was to promote understanding. We were to explain who these people were, and why they wanted to do this to us.
The world was not ready, ten years ago, to hear this message. In many ways, it still isn’t. Most North Americans still view what happened through their own cultural lens. Following the attacks, Jean Chrétien attributed the violence to economic deprivation in the perpetrators’ countries of origin, though we would later find out that most of them came from well-off Saudi Arabia. They were not influenced by the West’s 20th-century wars of materialism. A new ideology was at work here that had nothing to do with economics.
Phil Gibson, former head of communication for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, later described to me in an interview Ottawa’s paralysis in the immediate aftermath. The federal government initially didn’t know how to react publicly to the crimes. Meantime, Parliament Hill was evacuated while the RCMP investigated a suspicious van.
The attacks shattered Canada’s complacent, it-can’t-happen-here isolationism, which has reigned since Sen. Raoul Dandurand told the League of Nations in 1924 that Canadians, protected by three oceans, “live in a fireproof house, far from inflammable materials.”
The New York Times sent me that day to Mirabel Airport, where Vice-President Al Gore and other air travelers had landed after the Federal Aviation Administration closed the United States to all air traffic. I had never seen so many aircraft on the ramp there. The main concourse inside the terminal—usually so empty that you can use it as a bowling alley—was packed wall-to-wall that day with more than a thousand international travelers.
As I glided through the throng, the eerie part was the silence. I had expected excited pandemonium, as disembarking passengers tried to make alternate travel and accommodation plans and swap information about that day’s attacks. Instead, numb, stony calm etched the faces of the stunned America-bound crowd, their eyes fixed on nothing in particular, a hundred yards away.
RCMP held the passengers aboard the diverted aircraft until they completed hand and sniffer dog inspections of all baggage aboard. Security personnel also isolated two American Airlines jets more than a quarter-mile down the runway from other aircraft.
St. Petersburg resident Wayne Pasco, returning to Miami from a business trip to Zurich, commended the efficiency of the Canadian inspectors. “I don’t think anybody minds. Do I object to excess security? I think that they’re doing great.” Mr. Pasco explained that the pilot of his Swissair flight announced that United States airspace was closed due to the attack on the World Trade Center, and that the aircraft would land in Newfoundland, “but then we managed to work our way here.”
Passengers on other aircraft that landed at Mirabel said that they were not told about the reason for the diversion until after they arrived.
Civic officials scrambled to find accommodation for the stranded air travelers who had arrived during Montreal’s peak travel season. There was nowhere else for them to go: Canada had cancelled all outbound flights, effectively shutting down air travel throughout North America. Mr. Pasco planned to rent a car and drive back to Florida. Flights that landed at Gander, Newfoundland, and Quebec City were similarly stranded. Though an American embassy spokesman told me that the land border remained open, certain border points in Quebec and Ontario had clearly been temporarily shut. Security was also beefed up at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a large United Nations agency headquartered in Montreal, spokesman Denis Chagnon told me.
There is no television in my office, so I didn’t see imagery of the attacks until that evening. The magnitude of the destruction exceeded all expectation. Ultimately, after exhaustive investigation, authorities were satisfied that the atrocities of September 11, 2001, had no connection to Canada. This reassurance should not give way to complacency, however. Ahmed Ressam was not a violent extremist when he left Algeria. He was radicalized here in Montreal, after he arrived in Canada.
Canada, mercifully, is the only country on Osama bin Laden’s list of targets that has, thus far, been spared an attack. Though hopefully this will remain true, 9/11 showed that no country is immune.
Note: This report originally appeared in The Suburban on Sept. 7, 2011.