There was no need to be particularly impressed or to defend the comments of the newly appointed leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Fresh off his victory in the Liberal Party leadership election, Trudeau was asked how he would respond to such an attack. In response Trudeau stated:
“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? Yes, there’s a need for security and response. 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 those who already are feeling like they are enemies of society.”
Trudeau’s comments reflect common wisdom. It is elementary to anyone interested in conflict resolution and the transformation of violence to peace. Heck, it is common wisdom to the common gardener and to every medical practitioner. You don’t get rid of weeds by cutting the flowers; you need to get at the roots. You don’t just deal with the symptoms of illness; you address the root causes of disease.
In the realm of conflict resolution and conflict transformation, there has long been a recognition that peace requires addressing both the causes and dynamics of violence. Dealing only with symptoms or dynamics risks leaving the motivations for violence in place and risks creating additional grievances which subsequently act as new justifications for continued violence.
Yet in response to Trudeau’s comments, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper went on a blistering and remarkably misplaced offensive. In doing so, he exposed his views on Canada’s role in dealing with terrorism and political violence. It wasn’t pretty.
While attending the funeral of Margaret Thatcher in London, Harper declared:
“When you see this kind of action, when you see this kind of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes. You condemn it categorically and to the extent that you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible and that is what this government would do if it ever was faced with such actions.”
In the wake of tragic events like the bombings in Boston, there is clearly reason to categorically condemn violence , express sympathy and condolences and to support the pursuit of justice and accountability. But there is also a need to understand why such tragedies occur and why some groups resort to violence. Reacting harshly is the easy part. Identifying what can be done to prevent such violence is harder but even more important. At the same time, striving to understand the root causes of violence can and should never be conflated with a defence of violence.
Sadly, Harper’s approach is just anther example of Canada’s Conservative Government focusing on the symptoms of critical challenges facing Canadians and the international community. This has been Harper’s approach to domestic crime (fill jails and trump up the dangers of ‘unreported crime‘!) and it was the approach to Omar Khadr, the Canadian child soldier who was detained for a decade in Guantanamo Bay and repatriated, only reluctantly, to Canada last year. The policy of the Government has been to ‘act tough’ and ‘punish wherever possible’. The result, however, is irresponsible and simply dangerous. It also confounds an already incoherent and irresponsible foreign policy, one which has led to Canada’s increasingly diminished international prestige and flailing global reputation.
The Harper Government’s approach to violence strips those interested in achieving peace and preventing violence of the ability to transform violent conflict into the non-violent expression of political competition and contestation. History shows this can only increase the likelihood that violence will be recur.
Moreover, by ignoring the causes of violence, further marginalizing potential perpetrators of violence and adding to their grievances, the Government risks perpetuating a cycle of violence by armed and terrorist groups. As such, it isn’t a stretch to say that this Harper Government poses a threat to peace – in Canada and abroad.