Several dozen people seated at the D.F. Cook Recital Hall at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in St. John’s Thursday night were shuffled to the front of the hall to fill in the seats for the cameras.
The audience was there to see “How has 9-11 changed our world?” a two-hour panel discussion broadcast live on the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC).
The panel was made up of Maclean’s magazine’s national editor, Andrew Coyne; Maclean’s senior columnist, Paul Wells; David Collenette who was national transport minister on 9-11; author and political activist Tarek Fatah; and the director of the national security program of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Sukanya Pillay.
Hosting on behalf of CPAC, Peter Van Dusen began with a muddled introduction outlining the university’s creation as a tribute to the sacrifice of Newfoundland soldiers. That was linked to later wars, then remembrance and finally remembrance of 9-11.
“Our program is about how the events of that day changed our lives,” Van Dusen said, finally setting a firm foundation to begin the discussion.
What followed was well-informed commentary that covered a broad range of topics, skipping back and forth from Sept. 11, 2001 and its immediate aftermath through to security considerations in 2011 and how we will respond to the threat of terrorism in the future.
The panel tended not to differentiate between Canada and the United States in their statements. For example, in the introductory go around, Coyne referred to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the attacks “on our soil,” while Collenette said at one point that “we, the West” have made at times “monumental errors” in dealings with the Middle East.
Certain thing sparked little debate, for example the failure of Americans to process intelligence and respond to warnings of terrorist activity in the lead-up to 9-11. “The Americans dropped the ball,” Coyne said flatly, at one point.
Reasonably, there was no single statement to encompass the reason for the 9-11 terrorist attacks or attacks that have followed in the years since.
Collenette was the first to call for a focus on why individuals decided to take up the extremist mantle.
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Fatah challenged the ability for Canadians to name terrorists let alone understand their motivations. “We’ve wasted 10 years. We need to understand this ideology,” he said.
On the subject of security, Collenette said he considered changes made since 9-11 for airlines successful.
“I do believe the security that I underwent this morning on my way to St. John’s was laughably excessive,” said Wells, who added it was something he didn’t challenge, because of the realization of what if something gets through otherwise.
On the subject of discrimination stemming from security, Fatah said it was a cliché to say Muslims were subject to harassment post 9-11, yet he later stated he has experienced such harassment, being regularly pulled out of airport lineups. “I was spat on my face two days after 9-11 at Union Station.”
Yet some of Fatah’s statements on international relations, particularly his calls for trade action against Saudi Arabia, did not sit well with his fellow panellists and sparked exchanges.
Pillay, meanwhile, was the panel’s champion for the rights of the individual and values such as the presumption of innocence. She called for Canadians to stand strong with existing law when it comes to combating terrorism, rather than trying to rewrite the book and she challenged ideas such as rampant surveillance and other measures in the name of security.
“I think we have to be realistic about what threats exist,” she said.
Standing strong was a theme for Coyne — who called for Canadians to accept that the country will have to continue to be mindful of security and defend against the threat of terrorism.
The conversation was propelled by Van Dusen with video of statements by MP Vic Toews on security and responses collected to various poll questions posed prior to the event.
“How has 9-11 changed our world?” will be re-aired in its entirety on CPAC Saturday at 5:30 p.m. local time and on Sunday, at 6:30 p.m.