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MILLENNIUM MADNESS AT THE BORDER HAS POTENTIAL FOR LONG-TERM DAMAGE TO U.S.-CANADIAN RELATIONS

Around Christmastime, my family and I always look forward to a trip or two to some of our favorite shopping and eating spots in Buffalo. But not this year. For the first in as many Christmases as we can remember, we crossed a trip across the border off our list. And I'm sure we weren't alone.

There was simply too much madness at the border this holiday season, and I'm not talking about some zany idea that we might drive up to one of the border bridges at the same moment authorities were engaged in a standoff with a carload of zealots and a bomb.

I'm talking about what were, at times, hours-long backups at the bridges, fueled by a pre-millennium binge of fear-mongering that had Americans worried about terrorists spilling over the border from the "Great White North" and normally sensible people in both our countries scrambling to their local hardware depots for Y2K survival kits.

The madness seemed to peak along the Niagara stretch of the border on the night before New Year's Eve, when Buffalo Eyewitness News anchors kicked off their 11 p.m. newscast with word that things "got a little extra tense at the border crossings . . . after a suspicious car forced authorities to close down the Rainbow Bridge."

The screen switched to a live broadcast from the Niagara Falls bridge, where a reporter said authorities were searching a car for "residue" that "may have been explosive material . . . potentially material for a bomb." There was tape of an earlier interview with two pedestrians who said they saw the authorities huddled around the trunk of the car and "thought terrorism."

Then back to the reporter, who signed off with what should have been the lead of the story -- that authorities had found "nothing dangerous in the vehicle." As it turned out, the car had been sitting there for days, if not weeks, abandoned by a Pennsylvania man after customs officials pulled it over because it had improper license plates.

As was the case with so many of the hysteria stories that filled the airwaves and newspapers in the days leading up to New Year's, I felt like the sucker who had paid his two bits to get into the tent, only to find out that the lady was wearing a fake beard, held on by a rubber band.

I'm as aware as anyone that the tightened security at the bridge crossings was triggered earlier last month, when an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam (allegedly tied to a militant organization called the Armed Islamic Group) was caught crossing the border from Canada to Seattle with material capable of producing a bomb.

I'm not trying to minimize the seriousness of his arrest or of the arrests, a few days later, of another Algerian and a Canadian woman at the Quebec-Vermont border after sniffer dogs picked up a scent of what may have been explosive residue in their car.

But with all due respect to the media hounds who milked this stuff for more than it was worth, I wasn't about to spend all Christmas and New Year's waking up in a cold sweat at the possibility that Algerian extremists were hiding under my bed, just waiting for a chance to slip across the American border.

Indeed, I think Canadians and Americans alike should be concerned about the long-term repercussions of this kind of paranoia on our ability to travel back and forth across the border and do business with one another.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the House Immigration subcommittee, is already taking advantage of what, in a Dec. 20 news release, he called "the terrorist threat from America's neighbor, Canada," to revive support for Section 110, a controversial piece of immigration legislation lurking around the halls of Congress for the past three years.

Officials in both our countries have tried to warn in the past that this legislation could make the checking system at the border so onerous that critical crossings like the Peace Bridge could be clogged beyond any hope of reasonably using them.

To fan the flames further, Smith and others quote a report released last month by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (an agency similar to the CIA), concluding that "many of the world's terrorists groups have a presence in Canada." They seem to draw nothing from the conclusion of an earlier, July 1999 report by the same agency that there have "been very few terrorist incidents in Canada during the 1990s."

It is hard to imagine what "terrorist incidents" (circa the 1990s) the Canadian agency is talking about (which leaves me wondering if this isn't just another agency bucking for a bigger budget).

In the minds of many Canadians, there hasn't been a serious act of terrorism on Canadian soil since 1970, when a militant Quebec group, called the FLQ, kidnapped a British diplomat, then kidnapped and murdered a Quebec cabinet minister, forcing the federal government to invoke war-like measures (suspending the civil liberties of every Canadian citizen in ways I'm sure many Americans would never tolerate) until the terrorists were apprehended.

As for Canada being a conduit for terrorists bent on murdering Americans, it should hardly need to be mentioned that the bloodiest act of terrorism ever committed on American soil -- the April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 men, women and children and injured hundreds of others -- was the work of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, two American boys who apparently spent too much time drinking in the hate propaganda of some of the hundreds of right-wing, anti-government groups operating within the borders of their own country.

It's a bit ironic, too, that Lamar Smith is one of the congressmen who has gone on record opposing further restrictions on the sale and use of guns, despite the recent rash of massacres by young people armed to the nines with guns in American schoolyards.

Perhaps someone should remind Smith and his ilk that through much of the 1990s, some 20,000 Americans were cut down in their own streets and homes each year, not by foreign terrorists, but by other Americans brandishing guns. That's an annual bloodbath equivalent to more than 100 Oklahoma City bombings.

So let's put things in perspective. We can work together rationally to maintain a border relationship that has been the envy of the world, or we can succumb to panic and a perverse logic being tossed around by right-wing elements in both our countries that "Canada's democratic principles, multiethnic society and its policy of welcoming immigrants" somehow pose a threat to the United States.

One of the more memorable images from the 20th century is that of President John F. Kennedy standing near the Berlin Wall, proclaiming proudly to the rest of the world that the United States has "never had to put a wall up to keep our people in."

Please don't start the 21st century by putting up a wall to keep people from a neighboring nation with a long tradition of friendship out.

DOUG DRAPER is a Canadian journalist living in the Niagara Peninsula.

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