The Dead


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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66 Responses

  1. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    I too wish we’d been a bit more sober in the streets. However, the intensity didn’t remotely match that of winning a sports championship.

    But as for the “trigger-happiness” part, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, nor that bin Laden is just one of many in a sea of Bad Guys. His call was for Islam to awake to its eschatological destiny, and there was a pause in the Muslim mind as to whether perhaps 9-11 did indeed signal and usher in that age.

    As it turned out, a major underlying complaint of the Muslim [and Arab] world, that of foreign domination and the suppression of the Islamic way by its tyrant surrogates, is on the precipice. Egypt will now have to decide just what type of regime its people want, and other nation-states may be obliged to decide soon as well.

    Bin Laden did indeed unleash something; what it is exactly, even the Muslim world itself doesn’t quite know yet.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      > However, the intensity didn’t remotely match that
      > of winning a sports championship.

      Having been in the middle of that once, I can attest to the veracity of that assessment.

      Although I imagine there’s plenty of people out there who were watching CNN and pointing at the Americans celebrating in the streets and rhetorically equating that to Palestinians celebrating in the streets after 9/11.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I was reminded of the Palestinians.


    • Avatar dexter says:

      The difference being that the Palestinians were celebrating the death of thousands of innocents and the Americans were, and are, celebrating the death of one guilty.
      Old joke, but I can’t help but put it forward. Osama Bin Laden dies and goes to heaven. He is sitting there waiting for his virgens when Jefferson shows up and starts beating him with a big stick. Then Washington appears and helps Jefferson. Then Madison and Jay join in on the beating. Osama starts screaming to God, “Where are my virgens?” to which god replied, I did not say virgens. I said Virginians.”Report

  3. Avatar RTod says:

    I am unsure how much celebrating in the streets actually occurred. This morning driving to work the local Fox affiliate local show was pre-empted by the national boys. They kept going to their live reporters in Washington and Ground Zero (and a few other random bigger cities, but mostly the first two) to report on the celebrating. And in each case the reporters kept saying folks were happy about the news but there really wasn’t anyone celebrating – but the narrative kept getting pushed nonetheless. My two favorite exchanges went like this:


    Reporter in Washington: There really aren’t any celebrations going on, it’s pretty quiet now.

    Anchor: Was it busy earlier?

    Reporter: Well, a couple of hours ago it was rush hour, so it was obviously busy then, with people going to work.

    Host: Wow, people celebrating even though it was rush hour! What a testament.


    Reporter in NY: So there really doesn’t seem to be anyone here celebrating, but maybe they have found another place.

    Anchor: In addition to the joyful celebrating going on there, do you see any people crying? So overcome with emotion at what this event means to them, and to the whole city of New York?

    Reporter: No… no, there are some people here with the normal security crews, but I haven’t seen anyone crying.

    Anchor: Do you think maybe some of those so overcome with emotion have just decided to grieve and celebrate in private, in their homes?

    Reporter: Well, sure, I think that could be the case.

    Anchor: Wow. What an amazing, heartbreaking, joyful story; I know we’re going to keep following it throughout the day.Report

  4. It’s closure for a lot of people. Emotional responses are not calculated – they are visceral. We also did the same thing in 1945 shortly after killing around 250,000 Japanese people in the span of a few of days.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I don’t think people are celebrating a death. I think they’re just not thinking “The Patriot Act will not crumble and blow away in the breeze of a new era of peace and security. Our troops will not come home.” but thinking that maybe those things really will happen. I’ll admit, I had a moment of thinking happily, “Maybe those young men and women will be able to come home now”, but not really much thought about him being dead. I’d also figured he was dead a long time ago.Report

  6. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Honestly, it’s not so much the literal ‘cheering in the streets’ as it is the broader idea that killing Osama means, once again, that We’re Number One! Maybe I’m overreacting. I’m glad he’s dead, don’t get me wrong. I just find the celebration of this event to be somewhat … bizarre. Or, rather, a bit wrong-headed. Contra Rufus, I don’t think most people celebrating his death are thinking at all about civil liberties and the loss of freedom we’ve experienced since 9/11.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Okay, maybe not. But they might well be thinking that this means the war is over. That was my first thought. The news anchors all kept making the point that it’s not over, but surely that’s a somewhat logical assumption. I just think that some of the people celebrating might be thinking, “Thank God this war’s finally over”.Report

  7. Avatar BSK says:

    I was bothered by the celebrating. Death should never be celebrated, even deaths that are just. Bin Laden is another name added to an already-too-long list of casualties of a war that need not be fought. It is being fought, and names will continue to be added, some of which might ultimately make the world a better place. But one should never celebrate death. At best, it’s morbid, and at worst, it detracts as much figurative humanity as the bullet that pierced his brain detracted from his physical humanity.

    Feelings of closure, of peace, of justice, of revenge and many more will be felt and felt intensely. There is nothing wrong with the feelings one has for these cannot be controlled. But taking to the streets and celebrating, and people were indeed celebrating, there was ample video of this last night from NYC and DC, giving a standing ovation at a baseballg ame, hooting and hollering…. none of that sat well with me. Gathering was okay, but people were acting like it was a party. They were probably a small minority of people and if they represented a wider emotional response, it was probably still not a majority. But it was enough to make another ugly chapter in an already ugly book even uglier.Report

  8. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    I think you’re right E.D.

    This has more to do with restoring national honor and a sense of supremacy than delivering justice. I like to think, what would Jean-Luc Picard do, and he most certainly would not be chanting “EN-TER-PRISE” after blowing up the Borg.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      I can only imagine the death-stare he would give that poor ensign who tried to start the chant, only to fade sheepishly and quickly.Report

      • Avatar Will says:

        Thank G-d we’re not the Federation, but I think even Picard might cheer on the destruction of the Borg:


        • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

          That whole scene is about him slipping into Ahab whale-hunting mania.

          And he certainly does not gloat over Borg’s annihilation.

          Cheering over the saving of lives? Certainly. Over the death of the guilty? Not so much.Report

  9. Avatar Will says:

    There’s definitely something unseemly about treating Osama’s death like your city just won the Superbowl, but I’m also baffled by this holier-than-thou backlash. Osama bin Laden’s death is cause for relief, yes, but also happiness. I won’t cheer, but I am feeling awfully good this afternoon.Report

  10. One thing that my wife and I noticed last night was that by and large the people doing the chanting and celebrating in Washington and NY seemed to be a fairly young-ish crowd who were basically kids on 9/11. So make of that what you will.

    As for the folks at the baseball game….
    1. I have always hated the USA!USA!USA! chant for any number of reasons – we really need to, as a nation, come up with a more creative chant or song for expressing national unity. Seriously – “Rule Brittania” basically gets at the same nationalistic message, but doesn’t remotely make my skin crawl when I hear it. Instead, it just makes me feel happy for the Brits for whatever it is they’re celebrating.

    2. Alas, “USA!USA!USA!” is about the only chant or song of national unity that we’ve got which can be spontaneously pulled out at gatherings of thousands.[1] I vaguely recall it being pulled out at some of the baseball games during that first slate of games after 9/11; last night is just more in that same vein.

    3. I have no idea how else the folks in Philly last night could have responded more appropriately. We are talking about Philly here, as well, so I have lots of ideas of how they could have responded less appropriately. The news was huge. People were excited and relieved and had cause to feel patriotic all of a sudden, unexpectedly. One of the two teams most closely associated with 9/11 was in town, a team that also happens to be a heated rival. A lot of folks in that crowd were also, no doubt, Mets fans who were profoundly and personally affected by 9/11 (Mets fans in suburban NJ, like me, often find it easier to go to see the Mets play in Philly than to make the hike out to Long Island to watch them play.

    Some sort of reaction was necessary – you suddenly had 45,000 people, some of whom no doubt were just moments before on the verge of throwing a punch at the guy sitting next to them – unexpectedly in a united emotional state spurred out of love of country and, yes, remembrance of those who were lost, people who were, by and large (though by no means exclusively) Americans themselves. “USA!USA!USA!” is, unfortunately, the only thing we’ve got to spontaneously express that unity. So that’s what was expressed.

    Did all these celebrations that occurred last night make me feel a bit uncomfortable in their resemblance to celebrations we’ve seen in other parts of the world? Absolutely. But can I say that if were at that game, I wouldn’t have participated with equal volume? No, I cannot.

    Those responses are largely human nature it seems to me, or at least the response at the ballgame was. I do think that there’s nonetheless a lesson here: maybe celebrations of that sort aren’t the proof of barbarity that we might think, but instead the expression of a very real emotion the causes of which are important to understand.

    [1]The good people in Sam’s Army (our die-hard Team USA soccer fans) are doing their damnedest to rectify this, but they’ve got an uphill battle.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      I hear you. I think maybe blogging has just forever damaged my sense of optimism.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      That something might be a part of human nature does not mean it is necessarily a good part. Emotion is good. But so is respectful restraint. A moment of silence, followed by applause and cheering would be one thing. But chanting, especially in a sports complex, is a completely tribalistic affair, understandable, but not necessarily worthy of encouragement.Report

      • A moment of silence, followed by applause and cheering would be one thing.

        I don’t know how, logistically, this could ever happen spontaneously.

        But moreover – and this is my central point – “USA!USA!” is more than just an expression of joy. It’s an expression of national unity above all else. National unity is exactly the right response to last night’s news. Whatever bin Laden’s political agenda, his means of achieving that agenda deemed all Americans as targets. He was not simply an opponent of our government but instead an enemy of all Americans who killed several thousand Americans for no reason other than their status as Americans. To chant “USA!USA!” in those circumstances is to recognize this, to say “We are still Americans; many of those who have died have died for being Americans; we honor them and remember them by continuing to be Americans.”

        On September 21, 2001, the New York Mets played that Atlanta Braves in an otherwise meaningless late-season game at Shea Stadium before a sell-out crowd that included 10,000 walk-ups. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was welcomed by a loud chorus of “Rudy!Rudy!Rudy!” These were people who were still trying to sort out who amongst their friends and relatives they had lost. The sentiment there was, nonetheless, very much the same as last night – “We are New Yorkers. We have lost friends and relatives for no reason other than that they, too, were New Yorkers. We honor and remember them by continuing to be New Yorkers.”Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

          We could go back and forth speculating as to what the psychological states of the people in the seats chanting were, but it would be for not. I respectfully disagree with you, not on what you state as being a good form of national unity, but as to whether that was the actual sentiment going through peoples’ minds.

          It is just to similar to “NUMBER 1!,” and “YOU SUCK!’ Sports chants support the team, but also deride the other. I’m not sure chants of nationalism can do otherwise.Report

          • It is just to similar to “NUMBER 1!,” and “YOU SUCK!’ Sports chants support the team, but also deride the other. I’m not sure chants of nationalism can do otherwise.

            “We’re Number 1!” is not something that I’ve ever heard as a sports chant, at least not in an arena while a game was pending, nor have I ever heard “You suck!” as a true chant outside of “Yankees suck!”[1], which is itself intended as an expression of unity against the Yankees, who represent to many people all that is wrong with the sport (seriously, I’ve been party to the chant in games where neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox were involved).

            I have, however, participated in innumerable chants of “Let’s Go Mets,” “Let’s Go Buff-a-lo,” “Bills Make Me Want Shout!” and even one or two chants of “USA!USA!” In each case, the purpose is always the same: “We, the crowd, are united behind you. We are One with you. And we will continue to be united behind you.” And, yes, this is the purpose of the entire mob doing the chanting; I am hardly the first to note that one loses one’s individuality in the mob, that when a mob (though it’s a bit unfair to call chanting sports fans a mob given the connotations of that in other contexts) is formed, it has a purpose common to all.

            Again, though, I wish that we Americans had some other chant that conveyed this instead of “USA!USA!” My objections to it are many. It is crude, uncreative, and chauvinistic, though I don’t know how possible it is to separate chauvinism from an expression of national unity.

            Alas, I am not a leader of crowds, and “USA!USA!” seems to have stuck.

            [1] Hockey fans will quite often shout “and ____ still sucks” or some such after a PA guy announces who just scored for the visiting team. This is not a chant, though.Report

            • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

              Atlantic’s Daniel Fromson gives a history of the chant:


              It’s pretty interesting. And probably does the best at illustrating my un-ease with regard to it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I remember chanting it at the Iron Sheik.

                Perhaps this is what Vonnegut was talking about…Report

              • Meh. That history is pretty much exactly what my points above would have anticipated. He doesn’t really inquire into why people chant at sporting events, but instead just assumes that it’s merely to show superiority. That he adds a suggestion that it is somehow anti-Muslim as well is kinda baseless.

                That it was chanted at Ground Zero when Bush made his speech there in 2001 probably confirms what I’m trying to get at here more than anything: it’s not about celebration nearly as much as it is about showing unity and a demonstration of support.Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

                Chants are mindless frenzies that allow us to get wrapped up in mob mentality.

                OBL was not a uniquely American enemy, and his death is not a uniequely American victory. The attacks of which he was apart and which he planend targeted people of many different nationalities, many different religions, in many different countries. It was the World Trade Center that was attacked.

                Yes his rhetoric was aimed at singling out the United States, and the West, which we have appointed ourselves the main representative of, but he was a global terrorist.

                Chants are cheap tokens and no substitute for real commemoration. If the chanting was really about “support,” we who sing “U-S-A” would do much more than yell in unison, buy ribbons and flags, and occasionally donate to charities. Chanting may be a cathartic experience, but that does not change the fact that it is exclusionary and sefl-aggrandizing. Many feelings maybe natural and understandable, but that doesn’t mean they should be promoted or defended. And wanting to embrace the viceral and primitive joys of triumphing over (killing) another human being is disgusting.

                “U-S-A” = “WE BEAT YOU”Report

              • Would that initial reaction have been any different if OBL had been captured instead of killed? I strongly doubt it.

                If the chanting was really about “support,” we who sing “U-S-A” would do much more than yell in unison, buy ribbons and flags, and occasionally donate to charities.

                Many have done more. What else can the others do?

                “U-S-A” = “WE BEAT YOU”

                This assumes that the chant is directed at the defeated. It is not. If a crowd wishes to direct its feelings towards the defeated, it knows quite well how to do so. This is in no small part what the crowd in Washington in front of the White House did; I believe I have mentioned that I am a lot less comfortable with that than I am with the USA chant.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                We obviously need more inclusive chants.

                “U! G! L! Y! YOU AIN’T GOT NO ALIBI! YOU UGLY!”Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      I presume Red Sox fans greeted the news with “Yankees Suck!”Report

  11. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Also, since we’re talking about inappropriate glee here, I’ve been sitting in the grad student lounge for the last hour and have had at least four very liberal grad students come in and say, “Man, this was one great week for Obama!” independently of each other. I’m guessing it’s not just them thinking this.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Maybe it’s just because I’m Protestant but the glee doesn’t bug me anywhere near as much as the inappropriate displays of it.

      You want to post on your facebook something to the effect of “AWESOME!”, then I will like your post. If you want to go to a public gathering and hold a sign and ululate “USA!”, then I will cluck my tongue and disapprove.

      Act more British, people.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        James Hanley notes “the good PR for Muslims–Dearborn Muslims rejoicing at Osama’s Death” URL here:

        • Avatar RTod says:

          Yes, Tom, but they’re not celebrating enough.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          From that Dearborn article: “We felt we got relief by him getting killed. Thank God, finally, it’s a done job,” he said. “I think by seeing him out of our life gives us comfort. At least no big harm will come to the Muslim community in the U.S. from him or people like him.”

          This is the sort of sentiment I had in mind earlier- it’s hard for me to come down too heavily on people, in any group, who are joyous right now because they’ve got hope that maybe, just maybe, a few less innocent people are going to be killed in the future because of this. I think that’s quite different from being happy just because someone died.Report

    • Avatar Will says:

      I’d also add that this news totally obscures the report about the bombing of Gaddafi’s compound, which apparently killed two of his grandchildren. I thought that was pretty horrifying.Report

  12. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Also, the sense of achievement, victory, revenge, etc. – it all falls a little short in a way. We’ve lost so much, killing Osama bin Laden hardly matters anymore. Too little, too late. I realize the symbolic importance, but I will be happier when the Patriot Act is killed.Report

    • We’ve lost so much, killing Osama bin Laden hardly matters anymore.

      I definitely cannot agree with this. Bin Laden’s symbolic value was hardly just in what he meant to Americans. His symbolic value to al Qaeda and to Islamist terrorism more broadly cannot be ignored, and that symbolic value has a real world impact on fundraising and recruitment. There was a cult of personality around him that is now gone, and there’s a big difference between joining Osama bin Laden in his fight against the infidels and signing up to fight for Ayman al-Zawahiri.

      This is not going to end the GWOT, and it unfortunately probably won’t even lead to the GWOT being scaled back anytime soon. But in the long run, it ensures that we can all sleep a little easier; that so many have not slept easily is the reason why the Patriot Act and the GWOT in general are still so impossible to put an end to or even scale back or fight with a little bit more sense.

      You and I are in complete agreement that the Patriot Act is a terrible thing that serves little purpose other than to create the illusion of security. But we should not ignore that this is a powerful illusion. OBL’s unnatural death reduces the power of that illusion by no small amount.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        I agree that the symbolic value is important. But is the cult of personality surrounding him really gone? Don’t martyrs play a significant role in the mythology motivating the suicide attackers? I suppose wherever I see signs for optimism, I see some dark twist that makes me doubt.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I would think that it helps when they go down swinging rather than holding a woman in front of them.

          But maybe that’s a cultural thing.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

            Possibly. Then again if you can die a martyr for killing a bunch of innocent people, including women and children, this might not matter much.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Che Guevara’s last words are the source of a debate.

              One story says that his last words were something to the effect of “Know this now: you kill only a man!”

              The other story says that his last words were something to the effect of “Don’t shoot! I’m Che! I’m worth more to you alive than dead!”

              Which last words strike you as more likely? It’s a crude personality test, really. Are you someone who holds Che up as a Grand Revolutionary? Or do you think that he was just another Leninist bully?

              Wouldn’t it be nice to know for *CERTAIN* what the last words were? (Hell, it’s probably a mixture of both. He yelled the latter and then, after he was shot, spat the former.)

              In the case of Osama, we should do what we can to hold up that he died holding his wife as a human shield instead of shielding her… and certainly instead of going down swinging.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “In the case of Osama, we should do what we can to hold up that he died holding his wife as a human shield instead of shielding her…”

                Considering the situation and the sources, I don’t know if I’ll believe anything reported about the incident other than “he was there, and when he left he had holes in him”.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                There is always a fog of war and it’s more than believable that Osama died hiding to the last second of his life.

                So let it be written.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                Actually, even the “reports” didn’t claim that he was using anyone as a shield. Brennan gets confused and babbles a bunch of different things. I’m figuring that what happened there was she stood up at the wrong time and the SeALs shot the shit out of her.Report

              • We’re also learning it wasn’t his wife that was killed, but the wife of one of his couriers. One of his wives was, it would seem, wounded, though.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                It was a good meme while it lasted.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                There’s a Tolkien fanfic written by a Russian guy in which all the glorious stories from LOTR are revealed to be just that: stories. Here’s Aragorn’s comment after he’s killed the chief Nazgul by stabbing him in the back during a truce:

                “I beat you in an honest fight, one on one – so it shall be written in all the history books. As for you, they won’t even remember your name, I’ll make sure of that. Actually,” he stopped in midstride, hunting for the stirrup, “we can make it even more interesting: let you be killed by a midget, some tiny little dwarf with hairy paws. Or by a broad… yes, that’s how we’ll do it.”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                As Che may have implied but probably didn’t: you can’t only kill the man.Report

        • That cult of personality was built in no small part around his seeming invincibility.

          Also, what Jaybird said. Plus, well, he didn’t exactly die fighting heroically in a cave living a life of austerity, a symbol of solidarity to the oppressed. No, he died in a well-to-do suburb in a mansion six times larger than any house around it living a life of luxury.

          I struggle to think of an organization in modernity that relied so heavily on a cult of personality around its leader to recruit and raise money that did not suffer drastically and quickly upon the loss of its leader.

          If martyrdom were such a great replacement for a cult of personality, I’m pretty sure that AQ would have made sure that one or two of its leaders blew themselves up in a high profile suicide attack of some sort years ago.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

            Good points. Though beyond this many other causes of continued violence remain.Report

            • Absolutely, and I do not pretend otherwise. But this is far from a meaningless event, and in the long run it most definitely makes us safer.

              As Sullivan correctly pointed out, getting OBL is why so many joined the military since 9/11. For so many people, it was him we were fighting against more than anything else. And, on the other side, for so many people, it was him they were fighting for.

              Is this the end of terrorism? Not by a longshot. Terrorism existed before OBL and will exist without him. It is, as has often been pointed out, a tactic, not a cause. But the reason so many Americans have been willing to fight a “War” on terrorism is because they have viewed it as, first and foremost, a “War” on AQ and OBL.Report

          • Avatar Plinko says:

            I think we’ll find that the believers will find a way to keep believing no matter what the details are.

            The symbolism of killing ObL only matters if we take the chance to pull back from the abyss of mania as a nation.
            If we stay there, white-knuckled and seething, I think the last shred of hope will be lost.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        I think it depends on whether you care about feelings or results. Can anyone imagine a post-9/11 President not choosing retribution, even if they were assured that doing so would lead to the most prosperity?

        It’s about honor. Which can be a costly thing to maintain, and a dangerous thing to be attached to.Report

  13. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    He was a bad man and we’re better off that he’s dead.

    I don’t know if I like the idea of people celebrating the fact.

    On the one hand, if we’re going to personalize political activity to that degree–martyrs, heroes, Big Bads–then we’re playing right into the mindset that motivates the people we’re fighting.

    And on the other…the way some of these people are talking, you’d think it was them out there fast-roping into a building full of bad guys with machine guns, kicking in doors that might have a shotgun behind them, running through blacked-out buildings hoping that the guy behind them didn’t aim too low? What the hell are people doing posting about it on Facebook like they personally pulled the trigger?Report

  14. Avatar Axel Edgren says:

    When death afflicts the monsters; dance in the streets without hesitation.

    What are you people, Christians? LOL.Report

  15. Avatar Freddie says:

    Come on, sing it with me now.


  16. Avatar Mike Palmer says:

    The immediate image that came to my mind was the people who celebrate outside of prisons after a death sentence is carried out. Even if there’s no doubt about guilt, it just doesn’t seem like a time to celebrate.

    I didn’t feel joy on Sunday night. I felt relief, and some hope that we have finally reached another milestone in this mess. All I really wanted to do was have a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and let the relief wash over me.

    Maybe I’ll celebrate later, when it’s finally over.Report