Stephen Harper is so relentlessly disciplined and careful with his words that he’s far less prone to verbal slips than, say, former U. S. President George W. Bush. However, he recently said something pretty strange in the course of answering a question about when it would be appropriate to address the “root cause” of terrorism, during a press conference he held with the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
“I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression,” Harper said. “These things are serious threats, global terrorist attacks, people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding threats to all the values our society stands for.”
Commit sociology? As if sociology were some sort of crime? Perhaps if he’d been speaking from a prepared text he would have said “indulge in sociology”, or something else that didn’t imply sociologists belonged in jail. Or perhaps he really did mean that sociological investigation of the causes of terrorism, if not of other matters, was morally suspect. It’s hard to know.
The rest of Harper’s answer, though, was all too clear:
“I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence, contemplation of this violence and our utter determination through our laws and our activities to do everything we can to prevent it and counter it,” Harper said.
Apparently Harper’s view is that terrorists don’t need to be understood, but only opposed. He really seems to believe that thinking at an analytical level, rather than a tactical one, is at best a waste of time and at worst a sin that one must not “commit”. I suppose this could be the result of being so wedded to a moralistic rather than pragmatic view of human affairs that attempting to understand the motivations behind a terrorist attack seems equivalent to justifying or at least excusing it: the idea of dispassionate analysis divorced from praise and blame may simply not compute as far as Harper is concerned.
To me the idea that condemnation is the only worthwhile response to a terrorist attack seems wretchedly myopic and anti-intellectual, not to mention simply foolish. How are Harper’s beloved RCMP supposed to adequately “counter” terrorists without understanding their motivations? It’s shallow and unskeptical to think that terrorists attack simply because they have “agendas of violence” (or, for that matter, simply because they feel “excluded”, although feelings of alienation must often be part of the mix). Those “agendas” arise for intelligible if sometimes eccentric reasons, and the grievances that ultimately drive them are generally real enough. The view that Harper should be conveying to the Canadian public is that root causes are well worth trying to untangle, if only to stand a better chance of nipping terrorist attacks in the bud.
Unfortunately, Harper doesn’t seem capable of appreciating that sort of logic. His natural combativeness, his seemingly instinctive desire to divide the world into “us” and “them” and fight hard against “them” until they finally collapse, gets in the way. This is why, even though I actually approve of some decisions that have been taken under Harper’s watch, I consider him temperamentally and attitudinally unfit for office. A man who can deal with the complexities of the world only in such Manichaean terms shouldn’t be making decisions that affect tens of millions of people.