The portrait of Ahmed Ressam that has emerged since his arrest for smuggling explosives from Canada last week has fed America's worst fears: On the eve of the millennium, an Algerian man with a trunkload of explosives eludes Canadian authorities, apparently headed for a million-person New Year's party in Seattle, and almost makes it into the U.S. if not for the hunch of a border guard. It makes for one terrifying story to the U.S., which has many terrorist enemies around the world but has stayed generally free of attack on its own soil, and it exposes a disturbing truth America is only as secure as its borders. One problem from America's standpoint is that Canadians don't seem to care much. "There's a sense of shock that this could happen under our watch," says TIME Montreal contributor Linda Gyulai, "but people here are more shocked than worried. We realize that any real threat is directed toward the U.S., and Canada is just a passageway."
If Canada is pushed into improved policing, it could be out of embarrassment. According to the Canadian press, Ressam showed up in the country four years ago, a self-professed accused terrorist with an obviously fake passport. That bit of deception didn't overly concern Canadian officials, who allowed him to stay in country. However, Ressam was refused refugee status and was later briefly jailed for robbery. When he was arrested a second time, he skipped out on bail and stayed in the city for over a year under an assumed identity. He's since been linked to the 11 members of a theft ring Montreal police arrested in September, nine of whom have been released. That group has been linked to Algeria's militant Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which, among other things, is suspected of planning bombings of Paris during last year's soccer World Cup.
When Ressam's story broke, Canada's opposition party immediately questioned the country's immigration policies. Prime Minister Jean Chretien defended the policies but wouldn't stand behind the Montreal police's enforcement. Red-faced, the police on Saturday set out on a so-far fruitless search to recapture the nine at-large members of the ring. South of the border, that just doesn't cut it, especially given the speculation that Ressam was a decoy for others smuggling explosives to different parts of the country. At this point, for all anyone knows, Ressam was acting alone and had no designs on a millennial blowout (or blowup), but until the double zeroes roll around, all American eyes will be looking north.