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House of Commons

Friday 14 September 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock, notice having been given by Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Earlier meeting of House in certain circumstances).


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Members Sworn

The following Members took and subscribed the Oath: Tam Dalyell, for Linlithgow and Paul Andrew Daisley, for Brent, East.

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International Terrorism and Attacks in the USA

9.37 am

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the Prime Minister I should like to inform the House that at 11 am I shall invite colleagues to rise and observe three minutes silence in memory of those who lost their lives in the tragic events in the United States this week.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, that you agreed to the recall of Parliament to debate the hideous and foul events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania that took place on Tuesday 11 September.

I thought it particularly important in view of the fact that these attacks were not just attacks upon people and buildings; nor even merely upon the United States of America; these were attacks on the basic democratic values in which we all believe so passionately and on the civilised world. It is therefore right that Parliament, the fount of our own democracy, makes its democratic voice heard.

There will, of course, be different shades of opinion heard today. That again is as it should be, but let us unite in agreeing this: what happened in the United States on Tuesday was an act of wickedness for which there can be no justification. Whatever the cause, whatever the perversion of religious feeling, whatever the political belief, to inflict such terror on the world; to take the lives of so many innocent and defenceless men, women, and children, can never ever be justified.

Let us unite too, with the vast majority of decent people throughout the world in sending our condolences to the Government and people of America. They are our friends and allies, and we the British are a people who stand by their friends in times of need, tragedy and trial, and we do so without hesitation now.

The events themselves are sickeningly familiar to us. Starting at 08.45 US time, two hijacked planes were flown straight into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. Shortly afterwards at 09.43, another hijacked plane was flown into the Pentagon in Washington. At 10.05 the first tower collapsed; at 10.28 the second; later another building at the World Trade Centre. The heart of New York's financial district was devastated; carnage, death and injury everywhere. Around 10.30 we heard reports that a fourth hijacked aircraft had crashed south of Pittsburgh.

I should like, on behalf of the British people and, I hope, on behalf of the House, to express our admiration for the selfless bravery of the New York and American emergency services, many of whom have lost their lives. As we speak, the total death toll is still unclear, but it amounts, we know, to several thousands.

Because the World Trade Centre was the home of many big financial firms, and because many of their employees are British, whoever committed these acts of terrorism will have murdered at least a hundred British citizens, maybe many more. Murder of British people in New York is no different in nature from their murder here in the heart of Britain itself. In the most direct sense, therefore, we have not merely an interest, but an obligation to bring those responsible to account.

To underline the scale of the loss, we can think back to some of the appalling tragedies that the House has spoken of in the recent past. We can recall the grief aroused by the

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tragedy at Lockerbie, in which 270 people were killed, 44 of them British. In Omagh, the last terrorist incident to lead to a recall of Parliament, 29 people lost their lives—each life lost a tragedy; each one of these events a nightmare for our country.

But the death toll that we are confronting here is of a different order. In the Falklands war, 255 British service men perished, and during the Gulf war we lost 47, so in this case, we are talking about a tragedy of epoch making proportions. As the scale of the calamity becomes clearer, I fear that there will be many a community in our country where heartbroken families are grieving the loss of a loved one. I have asked the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that everything that they need by way of practical support is being done.

Here in Britain, we have instituted certain precautionary measures of security. We have tightened security measures at all British airports, and ensured that no planes can take off unless their security is assured. We have temporarily redirected air traffic so that planes do not fly over central London. City airport is reopening this morning.

We have also been conscious of the possibility of economic disruption. Some sectors, such as the airlines and the insurance industry, will be badly affected. But financial markets have quickly stabilised. The oil producers have helped keep the oil price steady. Business is proceeding, as far as possible, as normal.

There are three things that we must now take forward urgently. First, we must bring to justice those responsible. Rightly, President Bush and the US Government have proceeded with care. They did not lash out. They did not strike first and think afterwards. Their very deliberation is a measure of the seriousness of their intent. They, together with allies, will want to identify, with care, those responsible. That is a judgment that must and will be based on hard evidence. Once that judgment is made, the appropriate action can be taken. It will be determined, it will take time, it will continue over time until this menace is properly dealt with and its machinery of terror destroyed.

But one thing should be very clear. By their acts, these terrorists and those behind them have made themselves the enemies of the entire civilised world. Their objective we know. Our objective will be to bring to account those who have organised, aided, abetted and incited this act of infamy; and those who harbour or help them have a choice: either to cease their protection of our enemies or be treated as an enemy themselves.

Secondly, this is a moment when every difference between nations, every divergence of interest, every irritant in our relations, should be put to one side in one common endeavour. The world should stand together against this outrage.

NATO has already, for the first time since it was founded in 1949, invoked article 5 and determined that this attack in America will be considered as an attack against the alliance as a whole. The UN Security Council on Wednesday passed a resolution which set out its readiness to take all necessary steps to combat terrorism. From Russia, China, the EU, from Arab states, Asia and the Americas, from every continent of the world, has come united condemnation. This solidarity must be maintained and translated into support for action.

We do not yet know the exact origin of this evil. But if, as appears likely, it is so-called Islamic fundamentalists, we know that they do not speak or act for the vast majority

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of decent law-abiding Muslims throughout the world. I say to our Arab and Muslim friends: "Neither you nor Islam is responsible for this; on the contrary, we know you share our shock at this terrorism, and we ask you as friends to make common cause with us in defeating this barbarism that is totally foreign to the true spirit and teachings of Islam."

I would add that, now more than ever, we have reason not to let the middle east peace process slip still further, but if at all possible to reinvigorate it and move it forward.

Thirdly, whatever the nature of the immediate response to these terrible events in America, we need to rethink dramatically the scale and nature of the action that the world takes to combat terrorism.

We know a good deal about many of these terror groups. But as a world we have not been effective at dealing with them. Of course it is difficult. We are democratic. They are not. We have respect for human life. They do not. We hold essentially liberal values. They do not. As we look into these issues it is important that we never lose sight of our basic values. But we have to understand the nature of this enemy and act accordingly.

Civil liberties are a vital part of our country and of our democratic world. But the most basic liberty of all is the right of the ordinary citizen to go about their business free from fear or terror. That liberty has been denied, in the cruellest way imaginable, to the passengers aboard the hijacked planes, to those who perished in the trade towers and the Pentagon, to the hundreds of rescue workers killed as they tried to help.

We need to look once more, nationally and internationally, at extradition laws and the mechanisms for international justice, at how these terrorist groups are financed and their money laundered and the links between terror and crime, and we need to frame a response that will work and hold internationally. For this form of terror knows no mercy, no pity and no boundaries.

Let us make this reflection too. A week ago, anyone suggesting that terrorists would kill thousands of innocent people in downtown New York would have been dismissed as alarmist, yet it happened. We know that these groups are fanatics, capable of killing without discrimination. The limits on the numbers that they kill and their methods of killing are not governed by any sense of morality. The limits are only practical and technical. We know, that they would, if they could, go further and use chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction. We know, also, that there are groups of people, occasionally states, who will trade the technology and capability of such weapons.

It is time that this trade was exposed, disrupted, and stamped out. We have been warned by the events of 11 September, and we should act on the warning.

There is a great deal to do and many details to be filled in, and much careful work to be undertaken over the coming days, weeks and months. We need to mourn the dead and then act to protect the living.

Terrorism has taken on a new and frightening aspect. The people perpetrating it wear the ultimate badge of the fanatic: they are prepared to commit suicide in pursuit of their beliefs. Our beliefs are the very opposite of theirs. We believe in reason, democracy and tolerance. These beliefs are the foundation of our civilised world. They are enduring, they have served us well, and as history has shown, we have been prepared to fight, when necessary, to

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defend them. The fanatics should know that we hold our beliefs every bit as strongly as they hold theirs, and now is the time to show it.

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