What would it mean to root out talk of root causes?

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assessment is correct, Justin Trudeau made a grave error in his first week on the job as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

In an interview following the Boston marathon bombings, Trudeau suggested that political leaders should consider the “root causes” of the attack, trying to understand what would prompt someone to cause such terrible harm to innocent people.

In a subsequent interview, the Prime Minister argued pointedly that there was not much for him to consider in this regard:

When you see this kind of action, 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 you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible.

Setting aside the Prime Minister’s eagerness to categorically condemn violence for a moment, what are we to make of his eagerness to condemn the search for root causes?


Paul Heidebrecht of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office

Who could be against the age-old wisdom that it’s always good to think before we act? That it is better to nip problems in the bud rather than wait for them to flower again and again?

Who could be against the modern wisdom embraced by disciplines such as medicine and engineering, disciplines that have advanced knowledge by leaps and bounds precisely because of their laser-like focus on root cause analysis?

I wonder, however, whether the Prime Minister’s sentiments actually resonated with many Anabaptists in Canada.

After all, we have a reputation for getting things done, not for humming and hawing over problems. After all, MCC is renowned for the impact we have made on the ground in countless communities around the world, not for our trenchant analysis of the systemic causes of injustice. MCC is a movement built by women and men of action, not words.

To press this potential point of connection between the supporters of MCC and their Prime Minister further, I wonder if many of us share an almost visceral response to any talk of root causes because we think it smacks of a desire to shirk personal responsibility.

Indeed, it seems that the very expression “root causes” has become a lightning rod for many people in North America in recent years. It’s viewed as a code or signal that someone is trying to minimize the importance of individual choice in human affairs; that personal sinfulness will be, yet again, disregarded as the reason why something bad has happened.

At times this may be a fair critique. It is certainly true that injustices will never cease until people’s hearts are truly changed.

Having said this, contemporary Anabaptists also have other intuitions. Intuitions informed by experiences living in communities and being a part of ecosystems, and experiences building institutions and participating in economies.

We know that it often doesn’t matter what people’s intentions are—innocent people will be victims of crime, will find themselves mired in poverty, will suffer the effects of climate change, and will be hurt by acts of terrorism, oppression, and war. We know that, as a prominent evangelical declaration put it three decades ago, “evil is not only in the human heart but also in social structures.”

And we know that, more often than not, it is just not possible to pin our problems on a few perpetrators.

Thus I think many of us share the intuition that something important will be lost if we root out all talk of root causes.

We worry, for example, that our efforts to support victims of cluster bombs will ring hollow if we don’t do whatever we can to ensure that more people are not victimized by this kind of weapon. And this is why it makes good sense to us that governments from around the world—including Canada—made an effort to negotiate the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Help providing artificial limbs and rehabilitating farmland from unexploded cluster bombs is certainly appreciated as well. But devoting resources to changing the policies of governments is, in our view, essential to addressing this injustice.

After all, like Prime Minister Harper, MCC’s partners and supporters have seen the effects of violence. We have not tried to rationalize it or make excuses for it. We actually have long track record of condemning it categorically. And that is precisely why we try to figure out (dare I say it?) the root causes.

Perhaps we just need to find some other words to make this point?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

One thought on “What would it mean to root out talk of root causes?

  1. Sometimes talk of “personal responsibility” can mask a vindictive desire to point the finger of blame. Attempting to understand root causes need not entail making excuses. If we wish to reduce violence of all kinds in our world, we must move beyond easy condemnations and polarized thinking. Disparagement of any consideration of root causes seems more like demagoguery than responsible leadership.

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