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McCain, Napolitano and the myth that the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. from Canada

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Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary recently informed a CBC interviewer that some of the terrorist-hijackers who carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001 entered the United States from Canada. This week Senator John McCain told Fox News: "Well, some of the 9/11 hijackers did come through Canada as you know."

Canadians, including government officials, journalists and tourists traveling in the U.S., have refuted this falsehood many times over the years.

When alerted to her error, Napolitano claimed she had misunderstood a question in her CBC interview and that she was well aware that the 9/11 attackers had not entered the U.S. from Canada. Blame it on the CBC. No one around the cabinet table in Washington will upbraid you for that.

The myth of the 9/11 perpetrators crossing the border from Canada is hardy and resistant to all efforts to expunge it.

Twenty-four hours after the terror attacks, the Canadian border was fingered as the hole in the perimeter through which the terrorist hijackers entered the United States. ABC News broadcast a story that cited unidentified U.S. authorities as saying that most of the hijackers had entered the U.S. through Canada. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were investigating the possibility that some of the terrorists crossed the Canadian border and proceeded to Boston where they could have been involved in hijacking an American airlines aircraft that was flown into the World Trade Centre. ABC reported that U.S. authorities were checking on whether a group of the hijackers had crossed the border from Quebec en route to Jackman, Maine. A tiny hamlet about 25 kilometres inside Maine, Jackman is located in remote, lightly populated mountainous country.

Not many days passed before it became clear that the hijackers had not entered the U.S. from Canada. The trail of the nineteen terrorists who carried out the suicide attacks led to various places, but there was no evidence of a Canadian link. Some of the perpetrators of the attacks were students in Hamburg, Germany before they came to the U.S. As the investigation proceeded, the theory grew that it was the Hamburg terrorist cell that hatched the plan for the attacks of September 11. Eleven of the nineteen hijackers travelled to the United States from Britain, where they had operated and trained for some time before the attack, and still others came from the United Arab Emirates. Some had trained for nearly two years in Florida to learn how to become pilots.

The fact that none of the hijackers crossed the border from Canada to the U.S. was repeated frequently by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and members of his cabinet. But the damage of those first incorrect news stories lingered. In the weeks following September 11, many stories in the U.S. media continued to depict Canada as a terrorist haven. An article in the Christian Science Monitor said that "Canadian and U.S. terrorism experts alike say the giant, genial nation -- known for its crimson-clad Mounties and great comedians -- has also become an entry point and staging ground for Osama bin Laden's terrorist ‘sleeper cells,' as well as for other terrorist groups."

A story in The Seattle Times declared: "While thousands of U.S. soldiers are being shipped halfway across the globe to fight terrorism, little manpower has been focused on a problem much closer to home: Canada. Experts on both sides of the 4,000-mile border say the nation to the north is a haven for terrorists, and that the U.S.-Canada line is little more barrier than ink on a map."

Hillary Clinton who was then a U.S. Senator from New York said that the U.S. should lobby Canada to tighten border security: "We need to look to our friends in the north to crack down on some of these false documents and illegals getting in."

Perhaps the most damaging of all the U.S. sources in reinforcing the image of Canada as a safe haven for terrorists was the highly popular television show, The West Wing. After September 11, the writers and cast of the show quickly put together a new season opener in which a middle eastern terrorist crossed the border from Canada to the U.S. The writers showed themselves to be geographically challenged when they had their suspect crossing the border from Ontario to Vermont.

Every time some prominent American repeats the falsehood that the 9/11 terrorists arrived on American soil from Canada, Canadians make diligent efforts to set the record straight. I think we're missing the bigger picture here. I've concluded that the myth will never die. Our grandchildren will still be refuting it decades from now.

The legend of the terrorists materializing out of the snowy north, shadowy figures en route to attack New York and Washington conveys a fundamental truth about what America is and is not and who is and is not American. A civilization that sees itself as the centre of the world has to draw diamond-hard lines to set itself apart from the rest of creation. The Romans did that, understanding the Germans to the north as bog-dwelling, fur clad, oafs who could be recruited into undermanned Roman legions but who were not capable of behaving well at feasts where baths were followed by orgiastic indulgence, purging, and more indulgence.

From their City on the Hill, Americans look out at the lands beyond in the same sort of way, branding peoples and continents as having this or that characteristic in a world that is taking an agonizingly long time to become civilized in the way that the people at the centre believe it should.

Canada and Canadians occupy a tiny portion of the American imagination. From Canada comes bad weather. There are a lot of trees there. Attempting to inform Americans about their northern neighbour is to inflict a low-level form of torture on them. With the best intentions in the world, the American mind cannot fathom thinking about Canadians for more than a few seconds. Pressuring an American to consider Canada is a form of sensory deprivation, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. No humane being should attempt it.

In the United States, there is no cultural or intellectual downside to being ignorant about Canada or spreading falsehoods about Canadians. Who is ever going to call you on it? No one who matters. Oh Michael Wilson, Canada's sleep-inducing ambassador to the United States, might call you up to insist that you got your facts wrong about Canada and 9/11. Yawn.

I think we should stop making a fuss whenever some American big-wig claims the terrorists snow-shoed into Maine prior to 9/11. Far better to open an ice-hotel for American tourists, somewhere on the Ontario-Vermont border, and claim that the hijackers lived and trained there for months before heading off to the south.

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