PM finds his voice in fight against terror

Sometimes you’ve got to be pissed off. Justin Trudeau got there this week as his response to terrorism continues its remarkable evolution.

Sometimes you’ve got to be pissed off.

Justin Trudeau got there this week as his response to terrorism continues its remarkable evolution.

The prime minister sounded legitimately angry over the horrible death of Canadian John Ridsdel at the hands of terrorists, and resolute in his statement that this country will not pay terrorist ransoms — directly or indirectly.

This will not bring Ridsdel back and it will not safeguard the fate of another Canadian being held in the Philippines.

Trudeau did not bow to the knee jerk reaction that some of his opponents urge, he did not send in the JTF2 or pledge to carpet bomb terrorist strongholds, but sometimes a country needs a leader to channel anger and surely there was anger — along with sympathy for Ridsdel’s family and friends — over the brutal and senseless killing of an innocent Canadian.

Trudeau called it what it was, “cold-blooded murder,” a substantive change in tone from a man who, since becoming Liberal leader, has often appeared to be overshooting in his quest to provide perspective and undershooting on the question of outrage.

This is, in fact, a major testing of a prime minister barely six months into his job. The fate of a second Canadian being held, 50-year-old Robert Hall, hangs in the balance.

The no-ransom policy is noble and correct. And risky.

Trudeau has downplayed the fear spread by terror attacks, but since becoming Liberal leader in 2013, he has taken on the role of amateur psychologist, appeared shaken, and seemed devoid of genuine outrage.

Indeed, his response to a Burkina Faso terror attack that killed six Quebec humanitarian workers in January was deemed so bland, the husband of one of the victims hung up on the prime minister when Trudeau called to offer condolences.

But there has been an unmistakable evolution.

In his first substantive interview after winning the Liberal leadership three years ago, bombs had just killed three and maimed more than 200 at the finish line of the Boston massacre, and Trudeau spoke of “root causes” of terror with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge.

“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, OK, where do those tensions come from?” Trudeau said, leading Harper to accuse him of “rationalizing” terror attacks.

Last November, the newly installed prime minister seemed shaken by the attacks in Paris. “These terrorist attacks are deeply worrying and obviously unsettling to people around the world,” he said, without specifically condemning them.

A few months later, following the attacks in Brussels, he found his outrage. “This cannot and will not be tolerated. Canada strongly condemns these cowardly acts … those responsible for carrying out these senseless attacks must be brought to justice and we will do all we can to help make that happen.”

Upon news of the senseless killing of Ridsdel, Trudeau said: “This was an act of cold-blooded murder and the responsibility rests squarely with the terrorist group who took him hostage.”

He said Canada would work with the Philippines and international partners to bring the killers to justice.

In many ways, Trudeau’s default position has been to rise above the fray, a mien much like that of his new-found friend, Barack Obama, who, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote after the Brussels attacks, remains “too cool for school.”

Obama’s resistance to cheap emotion, Dowd wrote, “has led him, time after time, to respond belatedly or bloodlessly in moments when Americans are alarmed, wanting solace and solutions.”

Obama reacted to the Brussels killings while watching a baseball game in Havana, but Dowd concluded he has kept his focus on the fight against terrorism.

All leaders have been accused of being tone deaf in their response to terror attacks.

George W. Bush channelled American defiance with his bullhorn moment in the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11, but his Wild West hunt for Osama bin Laden and his bid to form a coalition for the wrong war became both caricature and foreign policy folly.

In January 2015, Stephen Harper chose to attend 200th birthday celebrations in Kingston, Ont., for Sir John A. Macdonald rather than march in Paris with other world leaders condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Trudeau is no longer above the fray and he has been forced to react with resolve he lacked in 2013. But the fate of Hall largely rests with him and there can be no tougher test of a prime minister’s resolve than that.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer syndicated by Torstar.

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