The greatest mistake any observer can make in these sad times is to declare that popular culture can sink no further, that the worst and lowest have been achieved and nothing more vile or mortifying could possibly lie beneath. I wrote an essay on the death of American culture, published in 1993 in the Independent Weekly and later in The Washington Post, expressing alarm at the rapid erosion of taste, intelligence and common decency. The depths I surveyed sound like a golden age compared to what we take for granted today; examples of subhuman vulgarity I presented then would sound stuffy and highbrow to young Americans who've grown up since. Apparently there's no floor, no safety net once the cultural plunge accelerates.
Though I'm still capable of being stunned. The headline that froze me was "Kill bin Laden Yourself: First Video Game Rushed to Market." The new game, as realistic as developers could make it, working from conflicting early versions of bin Laden's death, was available to gamers within 10 days of his assassination.
Kuma Games marketed its latest product as "Kuma War Episode 107: Osama 2011." Each player is a Navy SEAL, armed to the teeth and equipped with night vision, creeping up those stairs in Abbottabad with murder on his mind. "People feel relieved that Osama's gone," Keith Halper, CEO of Kuma Games, was quoted in The Washington Times. "To be able to recreate his death is just an added bonus."
An added bonus it is, an unexpected windfall for every surviving enemy of the United States. The psych-ward violence of most video games is a given, a vicious commercial manipulation of immature minds that psychologists and pediatricians used to rail against until it became such a thriving racket that further resistance seemed pointless. Under the disturbing headline "'Gears of War 3' Inspires Frenzy," a recent business page announced that preorders for the latest edition in Epic's Gears series had passed a million, four months before its release. (Thirteen million Gears of War games have been sold, mostly to Americans.)
But Kuma's new game wasn't based on a comic book or a science fiction. It wasn't about an animated superhero and his robotic victims. Osama bin Laden was an unarmed man murdered in cold blood in front of his wives and children—dispatched with a mortal head wound and dumped into the Indian Ocean only hours before Kuma's game designers went to work.
That he was also a terrorist, a mass murderer and the nominal leader of the most dangerous fraternity of committed killers on the planet is not irrelevant, certainly not for the men who killed him or the president who gave the order. No doubt their consciences are clear, and should be. Only a hypocrite, after mocking the previous president for botching it, would disparage Barack Obama for the way he got this dirty job done. Only an idiot would stoop to celebrate it.
Commando counterterrorism and assassination as foreign policy are 21st-century refinements that depress me. Yet bin Laden was a special case, if we've ever seen one. His life was forfeit at sundown on Sept. 11, 2001, as he very well knew.
Moral and strategic defenses of the White House death squad extend no cover at all for the game makers or their customers. Kuma War Episode 107 is hardly the final straw—in some video game of the unspeakable future, each player will be a pedophile priest turned loose in an orphanage—but it might be the final nail in the coffin of American "exceptionalism," our quasi-religious belief that we are better than the rest.
It was painful enough to see infantile Americans celebrate a murder like a basketball victory, climbing lampposts, waving flags and chanting "USA!" "USA!" It was sad to hear voices crying, "Show us the corpse!" not for proof of the kill but for the pleasure of it. But when disgraced inquisitors from the Bush administration lined up to take credit, claiming that intelligence from the prisoners they tortured led the SEALs to bin Laden, this was a time to lower the Stars and Stripes to half-mast.
Did anyone consider how every tasteless excess, every display of ghoulish gloating would have warmed the heart of Osama bin Laden? It wasn't just American foreign policy in the Middle East that provoked this strange Arab's crimes and passions. He despised the United States as an exporter of cultural toxins, as a degraded state where civilization crawled off to die.
Not all Americans lived down to Osama's expectations. Obama, an exceptionally civilized president, in spite of being a native-born American, needed no advisers to tell him that "spiking the football," as he phrased it, was the most gauche and counterproductive thing he could do. The appropriate solemnity Obama assumed for the media enhanced his gravitas, and perhaps his re-election prospects, at a moment of national confusion.
A professional football player, Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers, asked America on his Twitter page, "What kind of person celebrates death?" and added, for the gloaters, "I ask how God would feel about your heart?" For these mild, humane sentiments Mendenhall was rebuked by his employers and pressured to issue a retraction. Another witness worth hearing was Donald Fitzgibbon of Knoxville, Tenn., whose 19-year-old son was killed by a land mine in Afghanistan two years ago. He resisted the impulse to rejoice at bin Laden's death, Fitzgibbon told The New York Times, because "it makes me no better than him." "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?" he reflected. "It doesn't always work that way."
Are we a minority in this country, those of us who see a bloodthirsty crowd reveling in homicide and feel as if we're in a zombie or a body-snatcher movie? There were sane voices like Fitzgibbon's to console us, but I found more of them among Letters to the Editor than on the op-ed page, where the pundits and experts parade. In the Times, the (mildly) conservative columnist David Brooks took the trouble to humanize the late bin Laden, reminding us that he was a lonely mama's boy whose mother was sent away, and that his distant, powerful father died when Osama was 9, long before he took up piety and terrorism.
The liberal Maureen Dowd, rarely encountered at any great depth, essentially granted us permission to celebrate, to relax and enjoy because revenge is nourishing. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt contributed a puzzling essay, "Why We Celebrate a Killing," that makes an unconvincing distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Times editors could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and column inches by replacing all of this with a brief letter published in the paper May 3, from Candida Pugh of Evanston, Ill.
"Press photos of Americans drunk with glee over the killing of Osama bin Laden recall images from long ago of parents hoisting children onto their shoulders for a clearer view of a public execution," wrote Ms. Pugh. "This mindless merriment, based on hatred, fear and foolish indifference to the rage it inspires outside the United States, echoes the mindless viciousness of terrorists. If we become them, what way of life will we have left to protect?"
Amen to that. Virtually eliminated from America's current cultural conversation is the critical distinction between "wrong" or "immoral" and adjectives like "gross," "vulgar" and the ever-useful "tacky." Aesthetic judgments have been relegated to the scorned and endangered intelligentsia, and in the absence of aesthetic consideration, grace in all its forms is vanishing from public life. Donald Trump honestly doesn't realize that he's coarse and ridiculous. He thinks his head should be carved onto Mount Rushmore, comb-over topiary and all. He thinks he should be a video game, and chances are he is.
One of the celebrities most outraged by the Osama-slaying festival was filmmaker Michael Moore, who told a CNN interviewer, "We've just lost something of our soul here in this country." "We stand for something different," he continued, insisting bin Laden should have been brought to trial. "We're better than that."
Moore, detested by the right and sometimes dismissed as heavy-handed by other liberals, is nevertheless one of the few consistent populists and anti-corporate crusaders who can count on an audience. The extreme hostility he inspires is a kind of distinction, considering his enemies, and I've always thought his weight and slovenly appearance put off shallow people more than his ideas. Unpopularity doesn't faze him, either. On this occasion he came across as a genuinely offended patriot, and he said one more thing about bin Laden that went straight to the heart of the matter: "He may be dead, but in a way he won."
Another superfluous thing that appeared in the Times was an apology for the celebrations from a psychologist who carelessly described the assassination as "defeating an enemy." Was bin Laden defeated, or was he only killed? Was Gandhi defeated? Were Lincoln, John Brown, Martin Luther King? Jan Hus, Joan of Arc? Was Jesus Christ? They were only killed—executed or assassinated, but hardly defeated. Losing your life is very different from losing the battle to which your life was devoted.
It may be decades before the long-term success of the jihadists can be evaluated, but Osama bin Laden must have died very pleased with what he achieved. On 9/11 he wounded this great power, the Great Satan as he saw it, more grievously than any criminal or many hostile armies had ever succeeded in wounding us, and he did it with a ragged band of fanatics who couldn't have robbed most 7-Elevens. He drew us into two hopeless, ill-conceived wars that have crippled the United States economically, strategically and spiritually, and from which our international prestige and military reputation may never recover.
He made a superpower look silly for a decade, as it overturned governments and ransacked nations trying to catch one mysterious terrorist who was always a step ahead. He provoked us into international torture networks, into Abu Ghraib and countless violations of the human rights of Muslims who were guilty or innocent of terrorist connections. He demonstrated that we were no better than he said we were, no stronger, no cleaner. Osama bin Laden hurt America more than a century's worth of foreign adversaries who came before him. This tall, self-righteous, gentle-looking murderer was simply the most effective enemy the United States ever made. In essence he won every round except the final round, the one where he might have died peacefully in bed at 80 with his trophies hung around him. But remember that 9/11 was a suicide mission, fatal to nearly all its conspirators, and the suicide in Osama's case was only delayed because his movement needed him. He never expected to live nearly this long, nor to die of natural causes.
Justice was well served by this ugly death, but it was no victory. If your enemy says you're evil and bloodthirsty, and you shoot him, you're the survivor, not the winner. History is more complicated than combat; when all is written, you didn't defeat your enemy by eliminating him but by proving that he was wrong. And in case you think I give this devil more than his due, or betray sympathy for the devil, you couldn't be more mistaken. An old friend from college worked on one of the floors where the first hijacked jet actually struck the Trade Center's North Tower. He was one of 9/11's first victims, a loss that entitles me to view bin Laden's death as personal revenge.
Yet even in death, as Michael Moore noted, Osama scored a last coup. While Americans whooped and chanted and rushed "You Kill Osama" video games to market, it was not only Muslims and anti-Americans who turned away in horror and disgust, but civilized people on every continent.
It was dreadful timing. America's image has never been in more desperate need of a makeover. In this global village where cultural artifacts are now visible to nearly everyone, the coarsening of America dismays its allies and delights its enemies. Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich are not the worst things we broadcast. Kuma's new game wasn't even the most jaw-dropping, brain-dissolving overdose of popular culture I suffered this month. In a rare tour of the TV dial, looking for a horse race, I stumbled across a rerun of the hit reality show Jersey Shore. I stared, dumbfounded, for at least three minutes, then clicked off the remote and sat in silence. I've lived in the United States for all but four or five years of my life, yet suddenly I was wondering where there might be a quiet, green country that would grant me asylum.
As a cultural critic, I thought, what would Osama do? Innocents would die if we carpetbombed the Jersey shore—possibly the solution would be drone missiles to destroy these creatures in their lair, with minimal collateral damage. But how could we eliminate the people who make up their audience?
I've been known to exaggerate to make a point. I wish, in this case, I were exaggerating more. There is no safe return from some of this "reality," no adequate response, no adjective in my arsenal half strong enough to convey what I feel. I thought again of Osama bin Laden: He was a shy man, they say, and such a devout Muslim that he lowered his eyes when an unveiled woman entered the room. If you wanted to torture a man like bin Laden, subjecting him to Jersey Shore would make waterboarding feel like a game of canasta.
If you believe in hell and assume that he suffers eternal torment for his crimes, you can imagine that an even Greater Satan has chained him in front of a 42-inch screen where Snooki flickers forever. Or has he gone to a better place and left us here in this one, helpless to break our free fall into cultural incoherence?