OTTAWA -- It's not entirely clear how one might go about committing sociology, but the prime minister of Canada apparently thinks doing so is a bad thing, at least when it comes to trying to figure out what motivates terrorists to kill.
"I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology," Stephen Harper said Thursday in the wake of the Boston bombings and the arrests of two men in Canada accused of plotting to blow up a Via Rail train.
However, until Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested looking at the "root causes" behind those who committed the Boston bombings, the Harper government was all for doing just that.
It started April 22, when, less than two hours after the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Trudeau was asked by CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge what he would do if he were prime minister when such an attack occurred.
"First thing, you offer support and sympathy, condolences and send down EMTs as we contributed after 9/11," Trudeau said. "Is there any material, immediate support we can offer? At the same time, over the coming days, we have to look at the root causes. 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?"
The remark had Conservatives practically drooling with excitement. It played perfectly into the portrait Conservatives want to paint of him: that Trudeau is in over his head. "When you see this type of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in response.
"You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible."
Last Monday, terror came to Canada when the RCMP announced they had arrested two men in Toronto and Montreal in connection with a foiled plot to blow up a Via Rail train.
It kept the idea of root causes versus enforcement on top of the agenda.
On Thursday, Harper made his comment about committing sociology, saying the only view he wants to convey is "utter condemnation of this kind of violence, contemplation of this violence and our utter determination through our laws and through our activities to do everything we can to prevent and counter it."
It's the latter part of that statement where the Conservative logic against root causes fails. Because until Trudeau rather awkwardly tried to talk about root causes, the government was actually quite happy to talk about that very thing.
In June 2011, it launched a $10-million, five-year program, the Kanishka Project, mainly to fund research into the root causes of terrorism.
"Today, I encourage scholars from all disciplines to consider how we can better understand the phenomenon of terrorism, so that ultimately we can more effectively prevent it," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said when announcing the first grants.
"Preventing future acts of terrorism is the most fitting memorial to its victims."
In July 2011, the day Anders Behring Breivik went on a rampage in Norway, killing 77 people and injuring more than 300, Defence Minister Peter MacKay even used the same term Trudeau used, saying, "We have to demonstrate and persevere and work together to try to find the root causes but also try to pre-empt and interrupt these types of attacks."
Trudeau's biggest mistake probably was commenting at all on a situation that was still unfolding and before he had time to reflect on what he wanted to say.
He hasn't yet mastered the art of the talking point and handed his political foes material that will be used against him many times before the next election.