Trudeau, Harper and the Boston bombings: Let’s go back to the tape

John Geddes on what the Liberal Leader said … and how the PM responded

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There’s been so much discussion about Justin Trudeau’s answer when CBC’s Peter Mansbridge asked him about the Boston bombings, in this interview, that I went back, listened carefully another time, and typed up what Trudeau said. My transcript is below, in case anyone finds it helpful.

It’s better to listen, though, since hearing Trudeau’s voice helps when it comes to catching his nuance. His tone takes on an insistent quality on the need to consider “root causes” and, later, on not fostering a “culture of fear and mistrust,” as if while he spoke he already anticipated objections.

He sure got them, and from the highest level. “When you see this type of violent act,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes.”

To me, Harper is here conflating very different reactions, as if they were interchangeable.

It’s obvious, I would think, that nobody should ever indulge in rationalizing or making excuses for a terrorist attack. But trying to understand root causes? That seems a pragmatic, defensible course, and not the same as rationalizing or excusing.

But the Prime Minister went on with greater clarity: “You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

In this second part of his reaction, he seems to me to be exactly right. Condemn the attack, speak of the need to find the attackers, and to prosecute them—that’s what citizens would expect and demand.

So how does Harper’s two-pronged critique apply, as he clearly intended, to Trudeau’s answer in the CBC interview? It’s a long and rather meandering reply. However, I don’t hear Trudeau rationalizing or excusing terror. He does clearly call for an exploration of root causes.

And that part of Trudeau’s answer strikes me as unsettling only because he introduces his interest in causes without first offering the three essential elements that the Prime Minister persuasively tells us must be there in a leader’s response—condemnation, pursuit, prosecution.

When I consider them together, I’m not all that impressed by either Trudeau’s answer or Harper’s counterstrike.

The Liberal leader spoke of sympathy for victims and concern about underlying causes, as is proper, but failed to express a leader’s necessary outrage and convey a sense of urgency about the need for justice to be done. The Prime Minister was far better on outrage and justice, but conveniently blurred crucial distinctions about those other possible reactions.


Here is Justin Trudeau answering Peter Mansbridge’s questions about how he would react to a situation like the Boston bombings:

“First thing you offer support and sympathy and condolences, and can we send down EMTs, as we contributed after 9/ll. I mean, is there any material, immediate support we can offer. And then at the same time, over the coming days, we have to look at the root causes.

“Now, we don’t know now whether 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, okay, where do those tensions come from?

“Yes, we have to make sure that we’re promoting security and we’re keeping our borders safe, and monitoring the kinds of violent subgroups that happen around. But we also have to monitor and encourage people to not point fingers at each other and lay blame for personal ills or societal ills on a specific group, whether it be the West or the government, or Bostonians, or whatever it is.

“Because it’s that idea of dividing humans against ourselves, pointing out that they’re not like us, and in order to achieve political goals we can kill innocents here—that’s something that no society in the world that is healthy, regardless of ideology, will accept.

[Mansbridge asks if he would talk to RCMP, CSIS, the Armed Forces.]

“Of course, I’d be worried about what specific targets there are. But there will always be more targets, more shopping centres, more public events, more gatherings than we can evacuate or we can deal with.

“Yes, there is a need for security and response and being proactive and making sure that we have information. But we also need to make sure that as we go forward that we don’t emphasize a culture of fear and mistrust, because that ends up marginalizing even further people who are already feeling like they are enemies of society rather than people who have hope for the future and faith that we an work together and succeed.”