Springtime for bin Laden: Why we use humor to neutralize evil
When I look back on the days following the 9/11 attacks on America, I remember feeling that irony and satire were dead, that nothing would ever seem funny again. Hey, we got over it.
Nearly 10 years later, Osama bin Laden is dead. The announcement by the president -- and the subsequent reporting on the military operation that killed him -- has sparked a revival of nationalist euphoria across generations and ideological lines. Some of this has been expressed with sober pride. There has also been a good deal of chanting "USA," of flag waving, of dancing on the dead man's grave.
"I feel a little guilty," said my wife Karen, "for feeling so happy about somebody dying." She is a better person than I am.
Between somber reflection and grave dancing resides an ancient reflex -- humor. We cannot resist the urge to turn the bogeyman into a clown. In dramatic literature, this impulse goes back at least to the Middle Ages where devils and other demons were often played for comic effect. They might drag damned souls into the hellmouth, but they did it with a fart and a song.
This tradition has survived for more than 500 years. As evidence, check out this scene of political satire from that tasteless animated puppet movie, "Team America: World Police." Arab terrorists and the oh-so-lonely leader of North Korea are played for laughs.
The last two days have inspired a run of dark bin Laden humor. While many examples can be found online, mainstream entertainers jumped right in as well. In his monologue, Jay Leno said there was already a problem for bin Laden in the afterlife: Due to a typographical error, the lanky terrorist was presented with 72 vegans. David Letterman devoted his entire Top Ten list to bin Laden's last words. Number one on the list was "Oh, crap!"
Wherever bin Laden winds up in the tyrants hall of shame, surely he will not rank as evil as Adolf Hitler, so it should not surprise us that history has left us many now-famous examples of satire humor directed at the Fuhrer and his cronies.
During World War II, American propaganda efforts included parodies of the Third Reich from the likes of Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, and the Three Stooges. The crown jewel of such caricature came from Mel Brooks, first in the 1968 movie version of "The Producers" and then in the Broadway musical.
Brooks's original Hitler is more flower child than Fuhrer. The anthem "Springtime for Hitler" defies good taste. And who can forget when the high-kicking chorus girls goose-step into the shape of a swastika?
There are dangers, of course, in such fierce satire, and journalists should attend to them as part of the continuing coverage of the death of bin Laden and its aftermath.
- Caricature depends, we all know, upon exaggeration of features, a distortion that often leads us -- laughing -- to the brink of bad taste and ethnic stereotyping.
- Humor is the strategy that often gives a speaker or author a chance to express difficult truths about a person or a group. But that license can be abused. When it is, the speaker should be held accountable.
- It always helps to remember that humor reflects not only on the quirks of the target, but also on the character of the humorist.
- While many citizens, including journalists, will get caught up in pride and patriotic fervor, a healthy skepticism remains the reporter's best friend. Remember WMD? Remember the Annie Oakley mythologizing of war prisoner Pvt. Jessica Lynch?
- Prepare for the facts surrounding the death of bin Laden to change, not just from the delusions of conspiracy theorists, but also from responsible sources weighing the evidence. One account had bin Laden holding up a woman as a human shield; another described a woman -- possibly his wife -- throwing herself in front of bin Laden to protect him.
As an American, I know which version I prefer. It's one that portrays bin Laden as a coward until the very moment of his death.
It's that sentiment, however irrational, that also makes me want to laugh even though someone has died. I won't be dancing on his grave. But then, I can't walk on water.