"I woke up this morning.
I could barely breathe.
Just an empty impression.
In the bed where you used to be.
I want a kiss from your lips.
I want an eye for an eye.
I woke up this morning to an empty sky."
--Empty Sky by Bruce Springsteen
September 11, 2001 will always be known as a dark day in history, the day that terrorists carried out devastating mass casualty attacks on an unprecedented scale, plunging the United States and its most faithful allies into a protracted war against terrorism.
The death, destruction, and suffering inflicted upon the United States by the al Qaida terrorist network on that infamous day cast a long shadow over the world’s greatest, most prosperous democracy. Aircraft were grounded and the skies were empty, except for American and Canadian fighter jets patrolling North American airspace under NORAD command.
The days and weeks after the attacks were dark, full of fear, anger, and foreboding. However, the longstanding friendship and alliance between Canada and the United States helped, in modest yet significant ways, America move out from under the long shadow cast by 9/11.
Attack on freedom
“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom, came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts,” U.S. President George W. Bush told his fellow Americans in a televised address from the Oval Office on the dark night of September 11, 2001.
“I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice,” Bush said of the unfolding investigation into the worst coordinated terrorist attacks in world history.
It was a clear and bright morning when jihadists hijacked four commercial jetliners and crashed two of the planes full of innocent passengers into the World Trade Center in New York City. Another hijacked commercial jet slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. And a fourth hijacked jetliner crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania after the passengers valiantly fought back and overpowered the terrorists.
Nearly 3,000 innocent people, including 24 Canadians were murdered that awful day by members of the al Qaida terrorist network.
In his Oval Office telecast, President Bush declared that the United States would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.”
The President closed his address to the American people with a piece of scripture from the Bible. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me,” Bush said, quoting Psalm 23.
A different world
“When I woke up on September 12, America was a different place,” Bush writes in his 2010 book Decision Points.
Not only were commercial aircraft grounded, the streets of the American capital were being patrolled by armed vehicles. “A wing of the Pentagon had been reduced to rubble,” the former leader of the free world writes. “The New York Stock Exchange was closed. New York’s Twin Towers were gone.”
On the morning of Sept. 12, Bush arrived at the Oval Office at 7:00 a.m. “The first order of the day was to return phone calls from the many world leaders who had offered their sympathy,” he writes.
The first call was with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The conversation helped cement the closest friendship I would form with any leader,” Bush says.
The President also spoke with the Canadian Prime Minister. “Jean Chretien of Canada said simply, ‘We are there,’ a promise that had been upheld by Canadian citizens who welcomed thousands of stranded Americans after their flights were diverted.”
Canadian response to 9/11
In response to the devastating jihadist strikes on Canada’s best friend and closest ally, Prime Minister Chretien introduced a motion in the House of Commons on Sept. 17, 2001 that expressed “sorrow and horror at the senseless and vicious attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.” The motion also extended “heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and to the American people.”
The motion also reaffirmed Parliament’s “commitment to the humane values of free and democratic society and its determination to bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack on these values and to defend civilization from any future terrorist attack.” After the motion was adopted, the House of Commons observed a moment of silence.
The Prime Minister then rose to address the House of Commons.
“In the sad and trying days since the awful news came from New York and Washington, it has been clear that the civilized nations of the world have a solemn duty to speak as one against the scourge of terrorism,” Chretien declared.
“There are those rare occasions when time seems to stand still, when a singular event transfixes the world,” the Prime Minister continued. “There are also those terrible occasions when the dark side of human nature escapes civilized restraint and shows its ugly face to a stunned world. Tuesday, September 11, 2001 will forever be etched in memory as a day when time stood still.”
Chretien recalled how 100,000 Canadians gathered on Parliament Hill just three days after the jihadist strikes for a ceremony to honour the victims of the 9/11 attacks. And many more turned out for ceremonies across the country that same day, the National Day of Mourning.
“Above all, it was a sea of solidarity with our closes friend and partner in the world, the United States of America,” the Prime Minister said of the outpouring of support for a wounded America.
“When terrorists struck at the heart of America on September 11, 2001, there was a valuable lesson—perhaps many valuable lessons—to be learned about the relationship between the United States and Canada,” wrote the late Paul Cellucci in his 2005 book Unquiet Diplomacy. Cellucci was appointed the U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2001 by President Bush.
“The immediate lesson was that the instinct of Canadians was to help their neighbours in whatever way they could,” Cellucci stated.
“Most of the world felt horror and revulsion at the death of almost 3,000 innocent people who died because they went to work that day, but Canadians may have felt it more acutely simply because they are neighbours and the bonds between the two countries are too numerous to count.”
Cellucci recounted how Prime Minister Chretien called him that day to offer whatever help was needed. And Cellucci praised Canadians on the East Coast for taking in stranded American airline passengers.
For the American ambassador, “the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy, generosity and goodwill from friends and even total strangers was overwhelming.” And he wrote that “seeing the Maple Leaf flying at half-mast all over Ottawa in solidarity with the Stars and Stripes touched us in ways difficult to express.” And he stated “that reminder of friendship” was “one of my most treasured memories of our time in Ottawa.”
Of Canada’s National Day of Mourning on Sept. 14, Cellucci said that it was “unforgettable.” And he stated that “the mournful silence of the thousands on Parliament Hill was powerful beyond words. Only the sound of the carillon bells from the Peace Tower broke the stillness.”
In addition, Cellucci offered praise for Chretien, who delivered a speech on the lawn of Parliament Hill that day. The Prime Minister told the mourners that “we will be with the United States every step of the way.” Describing Chretien’s speech as “unequivocal” support for the U.S., Cellucci said that the American people were very grateful to Canada.
“In the months that followed, the Prime Minister was as good as his word,” Cellucci said. “Canada was an important member of the NATO coalition that routed the Taliban from Afghanistan and restored freedom to a country whose people had been under the heel of repression and which had become a haven and training ground for al Qaida terrorists.”
According to Cellucci, Chretien understood the historical significance of the 9/11 attacks, noting that on the morning of the attacks, the Prime Minister famously said, “The world just changed.” From Cellucci’s perspective, “these were the words of a national leader who appreciated the enormity of what had happened and knew what had to be done.”
“Let us be clear: this was not just an attack on the United States,” Chretien told the House of Commons after the 9/11 attacks. “These cold-blooded killers struck a blow at the values and beliefs of free and civilized people everywhere. The world has been attacked.”
Chretien made it clear that the world was at war, that the enemy was terrorism, and that the threat was global in scope. “We must prepare ourselves and Canadians, for the fact that this will be a long struggle with no easy solutions, one in which patience and wisdom are essential,” Chretien stated.
To his great credit, the Prime Minister called for tolerance, condemning “demonstrations against Muslim Canadians and other minority groups in Canada” that took place in the days after the jihadist strikes on the United States. “The terrorists win when they export their hatred,” he said.
In addition, Chretien told the House that Canada is “a nation of immigrants from all corners of the globe, people of all nationalities, colours and religions.” And he made it clear that Canada would not sacrifice “our values or traditions under the pressure of urgent circumstances."
Not a bystander
In his House of Commons address, Chretien asserted that Canadians were “a compassionate and righteous people.” And he maintained that “when we see the searing images of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, many of them Canadian, wandering the streets of New York looking for their missing loved ones, we know where our duty lies.”
Chretien declared that Canadians “have never been a bystander in the struggle for justice in the world.” And he pledged that “we will stand with the Americans as neighbours, as friends, as family.” And the Prime Minister made it clear that Canadians would do whatever was necessary to defeat the terrorists.
Canada soon joined the NATO-led, UN-sanctioned mission to oust the Taliban regime, which aided and abetted the al Qaida terror network that executed the 9/11 attacks. According to the Veterans Affairs Canada website, the Afghan mission “involved the deployment of over 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel—the largest deployment since the Second World War.” And 158 Canadian soldiers “lost their lives in service while participating in our country’s military efforts in Afghanistan.”
It is also important to remember that Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry was killed in Afghanistan. Berry’s name was inscribed on the Kandahar Airfield Memorial, which consists of individual plagues dedicated to the fallen. The memorial was repatriated to Canada in 2011.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks had a transformative impact on the Bush administration, writes Condi Rice in her 2011 memoir No Higher Honour. Rice first served Bush as National Security Advisor and later as Secretary of State.
According to Rice, the events of Sept. 11 turned Bush “into a wartime president and all of us into members of a war council.” Similarly, Bush writes: “The focus of my presidency, which I had expected to be domestic policy, was now war.”
In her book, Rice candidly admits that she had been “marked by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that wouldn’t easily be erased.”
On the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Rice, then Secretary of State, recalls experiencing “a sudden and unexpected reaction that almost caused me to call it quits.”
President Bush was in New York “to observe the passing of five years since the attacks,” Rice writes. Meanwhile, she and other members of the administration gathered on the White House lawn for a moment of silence.
As Rice and the others stood in silence, she saw something in the sky that brought her back to that terrible day five years earlier. “I looked up as a plane made an approach to Reagan National Airport along the Potomac,” she writes.
“For a moment it seemed to be headed straight for us,” Rice said of the aircraft. “I was terrified but after what seemed like several minutes—but was only a moment—I realized that it was a normal flight path.”
That incident made Rice realize that she had been under too much pressure for too long. She decided then and there that it was time to step away from government service, it was time to resign.
Meanwhile, Rice still had to fly to another 9/11 remembrance ceremony, this time in Nova Scotia, the home province of Peter MacKay, then Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister.
Rice wanted to mark the anniversary with “an international flavour.” According to the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State, “Canada, particularly its Eastern Coast, had responded to 9/11 in the most remarkable way, taking the aircraft that had to be grounded immediately and harbouring the suddenly displaced passengers.”
Rice points out that “Nova Scotians had taken hundreds of Americans into their homes.” And she notes that “the hosts were total strangers who were just lending a helping hand when needed.”
Good friends Rice and MacKay attended a remembrance ceremony at which “several pairs—passengers and their hosts—spoke movingly about that day.”
That night, MacKay hosted Rice at a “family dinner” at a local lodge. “It was just what I needed, relaxed and low key,” Rice writes of her East Coast respite. “That night I slept very well with the cool ocean breeze coming through my open window.”
The next morning, as Rice and MacKay had breakfast at a local coffee shop. And he innocently mentioned to reporters that she had slept well in the night air, setting off speculation that the two were an item—much to MacKay’s embarrassment and Rice’s amusement.
“I’ve never told him that without that levity and refreshment of that visit, I might not have regrouped and returned to Washington to fight another day.” Refreshed, Rice stayed on as America’s top diplomat.
Friends, now and always
It will always be important to remember and mark the carnage of the 9/11 attacks and suffering of the victims. But September 11th should also be a day to remember that Canada and the United States are the best of friends who always stand ready to help one another in times of tragedy and danger.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist who specializes in international relations, human rights, religious freedom, and humanitarian affairs. He has a Master’s Degree in political studies from Queen’s University. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston