The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had a profound effect on me, and on the way the world looked to me. The man who took credit for the attacks, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2. The U.S.-Canadian relationship changed profoundly at that moment, struck by a monster who had probably never thought about it. My career as an American Canada-watcher changed that day, too.
On 9/11, I was working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. I had recently figured out how to stream CBC Radio on my desktop, and heard the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on the 9:00 a.m. news report. My colleagues had gathered at the television down the hall to watch the footage on CNN, and together we watched as the second plane hit the tower.
CSIS management urged all “non-essential personnel” to go home; it is amazing how many people working at think tanks consider themselves essential! I certainly didn’t, but was stuck because I lived in Alexandria and commuted by metro, which was shut down. I wasn’t married then, and had no kids, so I stayed in the office. The phones — land lines and cell — were out, and so I sent email to family and friends to let them know I was okay.
The months that followed brought dramatic changes to all of our lives. Together with colleagues at CSIS, I contributed to a collection of essays on how the United States should respond called To Prevail: An American Strategy for the Campaign Against Terrorism. My advice was to rethink border security and remember the importance of the U.S.-Canadian border to the economies of both countries; I have spent the years since writing about border security, which has become a central feature of the North American political economy.
At first, there was some optimism in Washington that the U.S.-Canadian partnership would respond in tandem to the threat of global terrorism, and I optimistically wrote about the opportunities for a coordinated response. At the same time, I began citing Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to Canadians as I struggled to find a way to explain how it was possible that things had changed, dramatically and suddenly, for Americans. The perception gap between Canadians and U.S. policymakers widened, an attempt to bridge the mutual incomprehension in those early years took up much of my energy.
By late 2002, I agreed to follow a friend and former boss to the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government-funded democracy assistance organization. For five years I juggled my roles as a Canada-watcher at CSIS with new responsibilities as a strategic planner for an organization that was training aspiring democratic politicians around the world.
IRI sent me to Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and a host of other countries that I never expected to see when I began my career as a mild-mannered Canadianist. In every place I went, I met young Canadians engaged in this work of democracy assistance, mainly working for U.S. NGOs (I particularly recall an unexpected conversation with former NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin in Baghdad in 2003, where she was conducting an assessment with a team from the National Democratic Institute, IRI’s counterpart).
As the Canadian government considered funding democracy assistance efforts, I testified for parliamentary committees studying the issue.
In 2007, I left IRI to join Hudson Institute. Democracy assistance, border security, and the growing collaboration between the U.S. and Canada in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and here at home all remained frequent topics of my writing and research. Yet very gradually, as Barack Obama took office, I returned to study the process of integration in the North American political economy; this was the subject that first interested me as an undergraduate, studying the 1965 Auto Pact and the 1988 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement. The great gamble of continental integration which had preoccupied Canadians since before Confederation had seemed to have been resolved in favour of an ever closer relationship with the U.S. by 1991, and a decade later it was Americans who began to express doubts.
The death of Osama bin Laden brought to a close the terrible decade that had changed the tenor of U.S.-Canadian relations and with it my career. Had Osama bin Laden been a Canadian studies major (do they have those at the University of King Abdulaziz?), he might have ordered an attack on the Ambassador Bridge in order to cripple the North American economy.
As it was, he sowed doubts and fears among the peoples of these two countries and dealt a blow to their once-shared millennial vision of peace and prosperity through continental economic integration. Canadians and Americans were alienated and frustrated with one another as never before, and in some ways still are.
We remain changed, but the new normal is beginning to resemble our former hopeful vision, at least a little. We fought, and are fighting still, the campaign against terrorism together even if in the process we had to reinvent the bilateral relationship anew.
When news of bin Laden’s death reached me, my wife and I were visiting family in Vancouver. There was no doubt that Canadians and Americans were on the same side at that moment, once again.