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Editorials Justin Trudeau and the problem with ‘root causes’

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks to media outside the legislature in Quebec City, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

Clement Allard/CP

With the identification of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, it may not be long before the world learns who the perpetrators were and what, if any, affiliations they had. The only thing that is clear right now is that there is little appetite for a discussion of "root causes," something Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said should be examined in the wake of the bombings. It was a poorly timed and misinformed statement that suggests Mr. Trudeau has a learning curve ahead of him.

"We have to look at the root causes," Mr. Trudeau said the day after the bombings. "Now, we don't know now if it was terrorism or a single crazy or a domestic issue or a foreign issue.

"But there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?"

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Contrary to what Mr. Trudeau claimed, there is, in fact, a great deal of question as to whether the bomber or bombers felt "excluded," a word that implies the perpetrators were victims of society. Is Mr. Trudeau saying that, if the world made everyone feel included, there would be no such acts? Being "completely at war with innocents," as he put it, is not the necessary outcome of marginalization. In the case of terrorism, the willingness of a non-state actor to murder innocent people can be the result of many other factors, including calculated political ambition.

The term "root causes" is also problematic. In one sense, Mr. Trudeau is correct. Societies should always try to understand the root causes of the problems they face. But terrorism is not an internal societal ill; it is a political ill, and often external, at that. The Boston bombers likely did not have a more complicated motive than the criminal desire to see people die and/or be maimed, but like all terrorists they could undoubtedly come up with a long list of grievances if asked.

Mr. Trudeau should have known that, in the absence of any information about who had carried out the bombings, his words would come across as an ill-timed scold. He did not display much sensitivity or diplomatic maturity. More problematically, his use of the term "root causes" raises the question of what he thinks those root causes are. Is he referring to American foreign policy? We need to hear more from Mr. Trudeau on this issue.

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