A Canadian in New York: an outsider’s perspective on 9/11

It was a day when Americans were becoming very tribal – very fast – and circling the wagons of exclusion

Gavin MacFadyenI remember.

For me, those two words will always and forever denote only one day in my life.

Every year since Sept. 11, 2001, I find myself returning to that Tuesday morning. I remember how it unfolded in the small community 130 km from New York City where I lived and worked.

What’s most instantly accessible to me about that morning was how beautiful it was. The humidity that made us sweat through the last days of summer had finally broken. The sky was a cartoon blue. I wouldn’t have been surprised to look up and see a bright yellow sun with radiating spikes the way we used to draw it in kindergarten.

I had just arrived for work when the secretary came rushing out saying that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. The mistaken thought we all had was that a small Cessna had lost its course. Only later would it become clear that a co-ordinated attack was taking place in the skies over America.

The town’s old air raid siren soon began to wail and that disturbing sound would remain constant throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It had decades before ceased its original purpose and was now used as a general emergency alert. It was the first, last and only time in my life I had ever experienced its unmistakable whine. Nearly all our fire engines and most of the sheriff’s deputies and state troopers raced toward New York.

I remember feeling miffed that there were reports circulating that some of the hijackers had slipped into the United States from Canada. When my colleagues began parroting this as fact to me, I got my back up – without knowing if it were true or false – and made the argument that even if a terrorist had crossed from Canada, it was still a breach of American security because they were surely responsible for defending their own borders.

My co-workers didn’t quite know how to evaluate me. They thought of me as Canadian and, although I certainly was, I was the only one in the office who had spent time in the military and so, while my Canadianness made me suspect as an outsider, my stint in the U.S. Navy also lent me a confounding legitimacy that they found hard to process.

“But, let’s pretend the impossible happened and there was a war between Canada and the United States, which side would you fight for?” was a question I received that day from friends at lunch. It was a day when Americans were becoming very tribal – very fast – and they were already checking bona fides and circling the wagons of exclusion.

I learned quickly to censor myself. I refrained from suggesting that perhaps a certain amount of national introspection was in order to understand why some wanted to attack America. On a more petty note, I likewise didn’t say that I had never liked the twin towers and felt they represented the worst of American excess. The twin towers were brash, vulgar and in your face – they were the stereotypical ‘ugly American’ given form in concrete. They detracted from the skyline and stood over lower Manhattan in a way that was almost rude.

I didn’t censor myself, however, when it came to voicing displeasure over President George W. Bush’s unforgivable failure to mention or thank Canada in his speech to the nation and the world that night. Although it has been explained away as an oversight – as opposed to an intentional slight – it still was an insult to a country that has, for far too long, been America’s conspicuously unappreciated ally.

In the immediate aftermath, I watched endless hours of television coverage. Our local news normally came from the New York City stations but their broadcast antennas had been atop the towers so they were temporarily off the air. To fill the gap, the local cable company managed to bring in a signal via satellite that, while not local, provided ongoing coverage.

They piped in Peter Mansbridge and the CBC broadcast.

For the first time that day, I regained a feeling of comfort and security.

Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer.

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