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Globe Editorial

Legacy of 9/11: the world's longest undefended border is now defended Add to ...

The wound of September 11th was deep and lasting for the United States. It was as terrifying a day as most people can remember. The hearts of Canadians filled and brimmed over for their friends and neighbours across the border.

In a lesser but still very powerful sense, the trauma was ours, too. New York felt almost like the centre of our universe. And there were our 24 dead, among the thousands.

But we have seen walls go up between us. The world’s longest undefended border is now, alas, defended. As natural and inevitable as some of the new rules are – a passport will get you in, a birth certificate won’t – there are some excesses that hurt Canada and the United States, too.

We continue to be great allies who diverge from time to time. We stood shoulder to shoulder in our grief and anger, we gave succour to the thousands of stranded passengers in Gander, we spent a decade in the bloody slog of Afghanistan. We said no to Iraq. We, too, were on Osama bin Laden’s hit list. And some of our young people, like some of theirs, turned to the ideology of cold-blooded mass murder – the mad means to an incomprehensible, medieval end.

We showed, both our countries, that democracies could repel the threat and still remain inclusive, tolerant, open. The nuclear-bomb-in-a-suitcase entered common parlance, but we built no backyard bunkers. We adapted our laws. We spent billions on intelligence, police, the military. We took off our shoes at airports. On occasion, all the protections having failed, an individual – in a plane over a Detroit, on a street corner in Times Square – noticed something suspicious and leapt into action, saving lives. Mr. bin Laden thought democracies were weak, and it took nearly 10 years, but now he is dead and the democracies are as strong as ever. And young Muslims are taking to distant squares demanding the sweet spring of democracy for themselves.

We committed excesses, too. Our security services sold out a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar of Ottawa, who was deported to Syria by the U.S. and tortured. Canada held a probe and apologized, and the head of the RCMP resigned. The U.S. went on with Guantanamo Bay, black jails abroad, rendition and a unilateralism that didn’t help secure a better world. At the same time, however, the U.S. managed a success few would have predicted 10 years ago: no terrorist acts on home ground since then.

Funny, how “the world’s longest undefended border” was a point of pride. Before September 11th, half of the border entry points to the U.S. were left unguarded at night. It was enough to put an orange cone on a road to let people know the crossing was closed, according to an illuminating paper by Peter Andreas, a U.S. political scientist. There were just 334 agents policing the 6,500-kilometre border. Brownsville, Texas, had more agents on patrol than the entire Canada-U.S. border had. Those innocent days sound a bit like the 1950s, when people left their doors unlocked – already impossibly nostalgic.

We can’t return to the undefended-border era. But we can ask whether the walls are always necessary. The bureaucratization of the border has run amok. Although no two countries in the world do as much trade together as our two, the border has become “Mexicanized,” in Prof. Andreas’s term.

This was foreseeable the moment that fingers began pointing at Canada over the origins of the 19 hijackers. None of the 19 came into the U.S. through Canada. And none of the 30 or so attempted acts of Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11 originated in Canada, according to the U.S. political scientist John Mueller. It doesn’t matter, though. Canada is not to be permitted a single mistake.

The world needs a confident United States. A U.S. that seeks security without limits harms itself. For 35 states, Canada was the leading export destination in 2007. U.S. exports to Canada are $38-billion greater than U.S. exports to Mexico and China combined, a Parliamentary committee pointed out two years ago. Much of it is not even trade, in the traditional sense. About 40 per cent of it is within a company’s U.S. and Canadian branches, or between affiliated companies.

The dream is an agreement that would give the U.S. the security assurances it needs, while keeping business and people moving. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says a deal is very close. President Barack Obama thanked Canada this week for being “a true friend” to his country during 9/11 and in fighting terror ever since. Let’s hope that any deal reflects and supports the trust between friends.

Ten years later, the sadness remains – sadness at the loss of life, at the wars that followed. And gladness, too, that insanity did not triumph, that a war of civilization did not come to pass. The end of the threat posed to Canada, the U.S. and the West by Islamic terror is still not in sight, but one can hope again that the world will become a better place.

 

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