VP at the DNC: Joe Biden's Disturbing Riff On Killing Osama bin Laden

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The vice president argued that putting bullets in his corpse was necessary to heal America's wounded heart. He knows not what he draws on.



I usually like Joe Biden's earnest, regular guy persona. The knock against him is that he's prone to putting his foot in his mouth. Almost every time he does so, I think it reflects poorly not so much on the vice president as the frivolous people who gleefully crow every time he phrases something poorly. They do so even when they know his intended meaning and that it is unobjectionable. It disgusts me when they do that. So I am often rooting for Biden amid his blunders.

But I didn't like his Thursday speech to the DNC. Oh, most of it was fine. He kept my attention, despite going on for almost 40 minutes, and his riff on a job meaning more than a paycheck was moving.

The section I didn't like was about Osama bin Laden. Biden sought to draw a contrast between President Obama and Mitt Romney on that issue by harkening back to a 2007 incident about whether it would be prudent to strike inside Pakistan to kill the terrorist leader, even without permission.

As a refresher, candidate Barack Obama said that he would order troops into Pakistan to get bin Laden, a position that Hillary Clinton immediately criticized. And Romney 2008 criticized Obama too. When I re-read the relevant quotes, it seems clear that Romney was objecting to Obama preemptively and needlessly announcing that he would violate the sovereignty of a nuclear-armed ally, even though he agreed that it might be necessary. Clinton and Romney were both right to criticize Obama at the time; and Romney is likely being misrepresented on this issue.

But that isn't actually what bothered me about Biden's riff on bin Laden. Let's see if you can guess what bothered me. Here's the relevant passage:

BIDEN: Look, Barack understood that the search for Bin Laden was about a lot more than taking a monstrous leader off the battlefield. It was about more than that. It was about righting an unspeakable wrong.  Literally, it was about healing an unbearable wound -- a nearly unbearable wound in America's heart.  And he also knew -- he also knew the message we had to send around the world. If you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the end of the earth!
  
Look, most of all, President Obama had an unyielding faith in the capacity and the capability of our special forces. Literally, the finest warriors in the history of the world.The finest warriors in the history of the world.  So we sat -- we sat originally only five of us.  We sat in the situation room beginning in the fall of the year before. We listened, we talked, we heard, and he listened, to the risk and reservations about the raid. He asked again the tough questions, he listened to the doubts that were expressed. 

But when Admiral Mcraven looked him in the eye and said, ``sir, we can get this job done''.  I sit next to him and I looked at your husband. And I knew, at that moment, he had made his decision. And his response was decisive. He said, "do it" and justice was done. Folks -- folks, Governor Romney didn't see things that way. When he was asked about Bin Laden in 2007 here's what he said, he said, "it is not worth moving heaven and Earth and spending billions of dollars just to catch one person."

(AUDIENCE):  Booo.
  
BIDEN: But he was wrong. He was wrong. Because if you understood that America's heart had to be healed, you would have done exactly what the president did and you would move heaven and Earth to hunt him down and to bring him to justice.

So here we have two arguments for why it was worth spending billions and "moving heaven and earth" to kill one man. Argument number one is that America must send a signal that if someone murders thousands of our citizens, we will not stop until he is brought to justice: a reasonable argument, and one that Americans routinely apply in our criminal-justice system. A serial killer is hunted by law enforcement until he is arrested. There isn't a cost-benefit calculation about whether it's worth catching that particular guy. Our commitment to justice itself is implicated.

But Biden's second argument? It's a doozy. As he tells it, America had a wound in its heart ("literally," somehow); America's heart had to be healed; and only killing Bin Laden could heal it.

That logic creeps me out. For starters, the figurative wound in America's heart is inextricably connected to the murdered Americans who aren't coming back. Killing Bin Laden was just. I am glad that it was accomplished. But it didn't heal the hearts of the people who lost loved ones. They need to look elsewhere for solace. Nor did it heal our collective heart, if it even makes sense to speak of such a thing. And it certainly wasn't a precondition for healing. Had Bin Laden never been caught, had he lived out his life in a cave and died an old man 40 years hence, are we to believe that for decades on end the United States would have remained broken?

That is giving a murderous terrorist far too much power.

Why do we keep doing that?

One needn't underrate the importance of justice to understand a lesson at least as old as scripture: that neither justice nor vengeance nor any sort of killing whatever heals a wounded heart. Love, grace, and time, those can all heal, but not a bullet in bin Laden's corpse. Was it satisfying? To millions of Americans, unquestionably and understandably, partly because we humans are fallen.

Prudence demands that we distinguish between "satisfying" and "healing."

There is a human impulse, prudently tamed by civilization, to take the corpse of a man like Bin Laden, string it up in a public square, and invite local firemen to come desecrate it with their axes.

Said Alistair Horne, a historian, describing a 1610 episode in Paris just after the execution of a man who assassinated the king:

When what remained of the regicide finally expired, "the entire populace, no matter what their rank, herled themselves on the body with their swords, knives, sticks or anything else to hand and began beating, hacking and tearing at it. They snatched the limbs from the executioner, savagely copping them up and dragging the pieces through the streets." Children made a bonfire and flung remnants of Ravaillac's body on to it. According to a witness, one woman actually ate some of the flesh. The executioner, who was supposed to have the body of the regicide reduced to ashes in order to complete the ritual as demanded by the law, could find nothing to bring his task to completion but the assassin's shirt. Seldom, even at the height of the Terror, can the Paris mob have acted with greater ferocity...

Joe Biden is surely as repulsed by the passage above as any of us. But the argument he advanced -- that America can heal itself only insofar as it "moves heaven and earth" to kill deserving enemies, no matter the cost -- shares more in common with the Paris mob than is prudent.

It is bellicose and irrational. It risks permitting savage enemies to make savages of us, and misunderstands how healing is actually accomplished. And it implies that the president of the United States should make decisions about whether to kill based partly on how it affects our psyche.

Decisions ought to be grounded only in what is just and what keeps us safe. So for once, Joe Biden has made a substantive gaffe.

I hope he thinks better of it on reflection.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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