Our authentic vice president, and the very real problem of ‘knock-off jihadis’

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Though you won’t see this on any plaque in the new George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, there’s one baton our 43rd president passed not to our 44th but to Vice President Joe Biden, surely the most misunderestimated practitioner in American politics today.

Gaffes, Biden’s got ‘em — a natural bi-product of that thing we call “authenticity,” really. But while we’re laughing it up, just as we did at the president now known as the Lucian Freud of Preston Hollow, we’re liable to undervalue the power of coming across like, yes, someone with whom you’d like to nurse a near-beer.

When the vice president told MIT officer Sean Collier’s grieving parents, “My heart goes out to you,” at a memorial here on Wednesday, it meant even more because Biden has one that he wears around in plain sight. And because he was changed by loss, too, with the long-ago death of his first wife and baby daughter, just as W. seems to have been by the death of his younger sister Robin.

Unlike Bush, however, Biden has not only heart for days, but a record of getting us out of jams rather than into them. His knowledge of and relationships in Washington helped get unemployment benefits extended in 2010. In 2011, he helped avert the debt ceiling crisis, and in 2012, the fiscal cliff.

Though some feminists have said outright that he should stand aside for history and Hillary Clinton in ’16, I would just note that he’s done a few rather concrete things for women, like drafting the Violence against Women Act and taking the lead on the administration’s push against sexual assaults on campus.


Bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Again on Wednesday, he said something maybe not quite comme il faut, but true and important all the same. He said what no one else had when he called the suspected Boston Marathon bombers “perverted, cowardly knock-off jihadis.”

So what’s so “knock-off” about men who caused so much real suffering? The bombings were by definition the work of terrorists, and the CIA had even recommended that Tamerlan Tsarnaev be put on a counter-terror watch list.

Yet he also seems to have been self-recruited, and to have pulled his younger brother Dzhokhar into a plan to kill, maim and terrorize people in Boston and New York.

Their distraught mother told CNN that with her oldest son dead, she doesn’t care if her other son dies. “And I don’t care if I’m going to get killed, too! And I will say, ‘Allahu Akbar!’”

Still, lots of things don’t add up to any jihad we’ve seen before: If Dzhokhar was at all religious, how does that square with his reported drug-dealing? Was his constant chatter about “soccer, cars, and Brazilian girls,” as the Boston Globe has reported, just a cover for his true motivations? What kind of religious zealot says his highest goals are making a lot of money and buying a great car? And if he’s so looking forward to claiming his eternal reward, why clam up after being read his rights?

Even the supposedly far more devout Tamerlan was known to his brother’s friends as a common-garden jerk who loved brawling and complaining, and he was plenty inconsistent, too. He boohooed about not having a single American friend, yet lived off his American wife, a doctor’s daughter named Kate Russell.

He clashed no less with his fellow believers than with non-Muslims, reportedly disrupting a January talk at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque by yelling at one of the speakers, “You are a kafir!” and thus insufficiently pure.

Though much has been made of their ethnic identity, other Chechens don’t have an anti-American agenda. And calling themselves protectors of Islam no more makes that true for the Tsarnaevs than styling myself as some kind Christian warrior would make me Joan of Arc.

Matt Damon, in conversation with John Lithgow, before Damon received the Harvard Arts medal. (Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)
Matt Damon, in conversation with John Lithgow, before Damon received the Harvard Arts medal on Thursday. (Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

As the actor Matt Damon, who grew up here, noted at a Harvard ceremony honoring him on Thursday, the younger suspect came out of the same high school Damon attended, just a few blocks from campus — a place the actor gives a big measure of the credit for his success. Both were loved and mentored at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, but one became the nicest guy in Hollywood and the other a suspected terrorist. “This kid was a member of the community,” Damon said, “and I’m sure we’ll all take years trying to figure it out.”

That’s especially true because we’re in all-new terror territory here. Biden called the brothers “perverted apostles of a decent faith,” but actually, their acts seemed to have been a perversion even of the perversion of a decent faith.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t in any way allay our fears, but multiplies them. Because if any angry loser with a pressure cooker can inflict this much pain, aren’t we even less safe than we cared to acknowledge? In this case, terror didn’t have any recognizable point — or indeed, any point at all.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Diana Reese | April 25, 2013