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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
A fearfully unique occasion
Parliament Square during the three minute silence for victims of the US atrocity
Parlaiment Square came to a standstill in mourning
Nick Assinder

It is hard to think of a single occasion since the second world war when the House of Commons has been so united, so grieving - or so fearful.

There were crisis debates over Suez, the Falklands war, the Gulf conflict and IRA outrages such as Omagh.

But, momentous as those occasions were, there was something awfully unique about the recalled Commons debating the atrocities in New York.

It wasn't just the scale of the attack or the unimaginable suffering and loss of life - including hundreds of Britons.

It had something to do with the growing realisation that this horror is far from over, that it has probably affected every community in the Western world, and that it is leading us into territory we have never before visited.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair warned of action ahead
There was a palpable feeling - not just in the Commons chamber but in the entire Palace of Westminster - that history is about to unfold.

The prime minister was blunt. He repeated his wholehearted support for President Bush. And he came as close as is possible to confirming he would back an unprecedented and continuing "war" against global terrorism.

And he won the support of newly-elected Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith - giving his first performance in his new job.

Spirit of unity

There were dissenting voices from the likes of father of the House Tam Dalyell, but these were offered in a genuine spirit of unity and concern over the possible consequences of retaliatory action.

Only veteran left winger Dennis Skinner broke the atmosphere by suggesting President Bush had "scurried back to his bunker" at the first sign of attack. He was greeted with shouts of "shame."

Labour MP Dennis Skinner
Skinner shattered the mood
But it was when Big Ben struck 11 and Speaker Michael Martin called for the three minutes silence that the extraordinary nature of this occasion struck home.

To a person, MPs stood in silence, the massive building works being carried out in the Palace of Westminster came to a halt, staff stopped in their tracks and even the normally frantic traffic around Parliament Square came to a halt.

For three minutes life seemed to come to a halt. The utter silence was almost eerie.

The thought that this was happening right around the globe was both moving and comforting.

Horror and fury

Later, in the MPs bar and restaurant, there was none of the usual levity and sniping.

Party differences were genuinely cast aside as foes and allies alike attempted to express their horror and fury at what had happened in New York.

But there was also the apprehension. The knowledge that at almost any time now US vengeance will be unleashed.

In many ways, this was only the beginning. It is inconceivable that Parliament will not soon be debating this crisis again - an no one dares predict under what circumstances.


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See also:

14 Sep 01 | Americas
Nations grieve for US terror victims
14 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair pledges action against terror
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