It helps those of us who might be considered “experts” in Washington, DC to get out once in a while. This is not just because it recharges and clears the head. It is because there is a need to see the real world and talk to real people. In this case, I was able to interact with both “non-Beltway” Americans, and visitors from several other countries. The conversations are enlightening and relevant to any security professional. These include the truly exceptional nature of our country, the degree to which others understand the trials we face, and how blessed we are to live just south of the Nation of Canada.
After a flight to Seattle, and a night on a train (going through beautiful mountains) the big Northwest trek really began. Touring the mountains of Glacier National Park in Montana (and trying to still work) was a blessing and a curse. D.C.-based Internet addicts find the less than ubiquitous and stable signal of the rest of the world a tough go. The insights are worth it.
Traveling through one of our older and most spectacular national parks, including a day trip into Canada, has been marvelous. Seeing bears, mountain goats, and big horn sheep always excites the average city goer. The sheer size and beauty of the “American Alps,” as they were dubbed in the early 1800s, make one wonder why we are worried about running out of space. This country is so huge and most of it is so pristine that it is clear the American time in the sun is not yet over. It is good to keep this in mind when the Washington handwringing begins over America’s imminent demise.
Switching next to a foray into Canadian British Columbia, the impression of size and scope only grows. Our friendly cousins to the North are magnificent hosts who are making the most of their most precious resource, the beauty of their country. Traveling on the train system in western Canada is a treat, relaxing and efficient. The only delay was when an elderly lady from Ontario had a medical incident and my wife had to lead the response to help her. It is always helpful to have my wife the nurse practitioner along, be it on 9/11 at the Pentagon (her first day there) or a working trip, she steps up and never seems to be “off duty.”
The other big impression was not peculiar to this area. It had to do with the visitors from other places. Our fellow travelers were from all over the United States, all over Canada, and all over the world. What they all seem to have in common is that: 1. they all are in awe of God’s creations; 2. they all are eager to learn about one another; and 3. they are decidedly civil and polite to each other (OK, occasionally someone gets impatient, pushy, and “entitled,” but the rest of us just shrug it off). Conversing with other educated but non-governmental people is an intellectual shot in the arm.
The discussions have occasionally strayed to politics and world events. Clearly there are differences of opinion, but there is also a great deal of “understanding.” Everyone seems prepared to recognize the difficulties of America’s role in the world. The recent and ongoing issues in the Middle East have elicited sympathy for the nation’s loss in Libya, and heartfelt wishes that there were fewer radicals of all ilk in the world. Even a diplomat from Morocco agreed that what occurred was shameful.
Also, there is a lot of knowledge and interest in our upcoming elections. In this mixed environment, one quickly realizes that while not everyone likes the fact that America still leads the world (the President’s “lead from behind” policy notwithstanding), they all want America to do well enough to keep things in kilter. Many have said that if America ever withdraws, or stops leading, the remainder of the world will in fact “drift” into very dangerous waters. Regardless of what may be said publicly by politicians, or even by the overwrought “street,” most of our foreign colleagues want America to Lead.
On another note, the security at the U.S.-Canadian border is solid, professional and correct. Any tendency to be slack and too open is simply not there. The border personnel are vigilant but not rude. There is a clear recognition that this border does not face the same challenges as its southern counterpart, but there is no lack of security apparent. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and their Canadian counterparts are real pros.
Despite the difficulties in the world, we have much to be grateful for. Understanding from international visitors is a great antidote to the vitriol that is the norm of Washington. A friendly partner to the north is one of them that the United States should never take for granted. We share much with the Canadians, and one is the blessing of not having to worry too much about covering the flank on which a friend is sitting.
So all you security experts out there, get out of the Beltway now and then, and breathe the air of common sense and reasonableness that is out there. It comes from the people for whom we all think we represent and their fellows from all over the world.