America the Immature and Superficial

Beginning the moment ostensibly spontaneous “celebrations” broke out in response to the news that Osama bin Laden had been shot dead by Navy SEALs two weeks ago, we—the American media consumer—have been forced to examine just what his death means to us.

The result hasn’t exactly been pretty. While there’s plenty of thoughtful analysis assessing the raid itself—the details and legality, the Pakistani fallout, the impact on the wars in Afghanistan and even Iraq going forward—count on the mainstream media to frame yet another major event down to its lowest common denominator, in a way that indicates Americans are all cynical, narcissistic, brutish, and not to mention a little desperate to prove we can still “get it up.”

It’s worth noting two of the broadest themes over the last week that are leaving us cringing and cold:

1. “TheYouth” owning “The Moment.” To thousands of college students, “bred in an era of fear,” as we’ve been told ad nauseam, killing bin Laden apparently meant the opportunity to set things on fire, climb flag poles and scream so inaudibly into cameras and microphones that viewers at home couldn’t tell half the time whether it was about the cold blooded execution of a terrorist mastermind, Mardi Gras or the end of the NCAA Championships. The constant “USA! USA! USA!” might have been a tip-off, but it was chanted at times with such force that one wondered if it were a threat rather than an celebratory refrain.

At least this is what we saw all over the media and online May 3:

Writers who at some level acknowledged their discomfort with the “America, f-ck yeah!” spectacle defining the coverage, typically tried to explain it away in predictable, existential terms. From Adam Chandler at The Huffington Post:

The instinct to become critical of the fervor sort of dissipated when I imagined that these kids, freshmen and sophomores especially, had only been 9 or 10 on September 11th and had come of age beneath a national pall of anxiety and impotence. If these celebrations came off as too muscular, too fratty, or too unfeeling to the onlooker, it seemed unfair to blame the kids who might have finally shaken off a barrier that had segmented their youth from those who had the good luck to effloresce in the indomitable America of the post-Cold War years.

One guesses there is no other way to explain such awkward outbursts as this college student, screaming at the top of her lungs and flagging the “hang-ten” or Hawaiian shaka hand sign. “This means everything! We killed the guy who killed so many Americans, Woo!”

Or this gal, unconcerned about finals in the morning and thrilled to be asked her opinion about the killing of bin Laden on a night of such revelry, “it’s the greatest f-cking thing in the whole world!”

Note the guy at the beginning of the video, who sketched out the key distinctions between Americans and terrorists so reflectively for the camera. “When they won, they burned our flags. When we won, we wave our flags, and we celebrate with hot, 19-year-old girls dancing in the streets. You know what? America is all about having a good time!”

Outbursts of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A,” along with the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” made for a perfect photo-finish to the public consumption portion of this “historic event.” That it took nearly ten years over a trillion dollars, 6,024 American service members’ lives and tens of thousands of civilian casualties wasn’t going to penetrate this jacked-up crowd, which preferred most times to stick with bumper sticker slogans and fairy tale endings, like “Ding Dong bin Laden’s Dead.

That college students are “liberal” and “left wing” is a hackneyed cliché. Truth is, as an American demographic they haven’t shown this level of enthusiasm for anything national security-related since 9/11, nor have they effectively demonstrated against the wars that concern their contemporaries the most, nor the security policies we’re incessantly told have clouded and colored their formative years. Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise, that this generation, conditioned not to question government but to “embrace unity,” to “love America” unconditionally in the wake of the terrorist attacks, would pour into the streets behaving exactly how the White House and military would have wanted—with unrestrained, unreconstructed nationalism—in response to this “defining moment” on May 1.

Makes one think how “spontaneous” it was from the start. And if it all seems terribly shallow, consider the “theme song” that reportedly emerged shortly after the celebrations began: “Party in the U.S.A” by Miley Cyrus, a.k.a Hannah Montana.

Seeing that TIME magazine was reporting this earlier in the week opposite a story entitled, “Everyone Poops: How Do Astronauts Go to the Bathroom in Space?” we shouldn’t expect anything more circumspect or less immature. But TIME is the mainstream, and like the Today Show, CNN, FOX and all manner of other media bees in the corporate hive, they shaped the narrative around the “American Spring” of exalted college youth post-Osama as though there was no other way a young person would react.

As Glenn Greenwald noted early on in the coverage, “Nothing that deviates from that emotional script will be heard, other than by those on the lookout for heretics to hold up and punish.”

2. Someone get Jack Bauer out of the moth balls… Not far from the gaiety of the red, white and blue campus, pundits and politicians alike have been referring to the killing of bin Laden as a return of the country’s honor and strength—as well as its libido.

“We’re back, baby!” John Stewart of the The Daily Show announced to a roaring audience during the May 2 broadcast. Not to put too much of a fine point on it—no pun intended—he illustrated this Viagra-inducing moment by providing a map of the United States, with Florida reflecting our, uh, “aroused state.”

Given that Stewart’s show is broadcast from Manhattan and the audience is predominantly male between the ages 25 to 39—and politically pro-Obama—this approach was hardly a shocker, more or less feeding into the bald nationalism and “unadulterated ecstasy” over bin Laden’s death reportedly taking place among the crowds at Ground Zero and Times Square. Nonetheless, Stewart strayed from his trademark irony-basted script for the occasion and was lauded for it by the blogosphere within hours.

“I am way too close to this whole episode to be rational about this,” Stewart told his audience. Al Qaeda, he said, has “nothing. Can they still do damage? I’m sure. But we’re back, baby!”

Greenwald hit upon this “getting it back” motif in his May 2 column:

There’s the notion that America has once again proved its greatness and preeminence by killing bin Laden. Americans are marching in the street celebrating with a sense of national pride. When is the last time that happened? It seems telling that hunting someone down and killing them is one of the few things that still produce these feelings of nationalistic unity.

He goes on to explain that it wasn’t just the surge of the blood-drunk street, but a suggestion from Obama himself that set the tone for this particular media narrative.

This is how President Obama put it in last night’s announcement:

“The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

Does hunting down Osama bin Laden and putting bullets in his skull really “remind us that we can do whatever we set our mind to”? Is that really “the story of our history”? That seems to set the bar rather low in terms of national achievement and character.

Sadly, such reason almost always gets lost in the din.

“I’ve never been so excited to see pictures of a corpse with a gunshot to the head,” gleefully tweeted Emily Miller, senior editor of The Washington Times editorial pages, on May 2. Now, like everyone else in the mainstream, she’s going gaga over all things Navy SEAL (they’re calling it “Navy SEALs Porn” over at Salon). On Sunday she guilelessly tweeted, “I’m going to be reading SEAL books all summer!”

Like a poor schoolboy with a touch of Tourette’s, MSNBC’s Hardball host Chris Matthews can always be counted on to erupt from time to time with a string of completely id-driven notions, usually met with well-disguised grimaces on the faces of his guests.

“This President is—and I mean this positively—cold blooded,” Matthews announced in one of his stream-of-consciousness pronouncements May 3.

“I think people who are chief executives of this country and have all the fire power before them, they need to be willing to use it or not take the job. It’s very simple, if you are not willing to use our military power, if you’re not willing to kill people when you have to you shouldn’t take that job.”

Republican primary candidates on the road to 2012 be warned: Obama’s found his mojo, and he’s not afraid to use it.

“The loudmouths of the right have no monopoly on toughness,” announced liberal columnist Joe Conason, who agreed with those loudmouths on the right and a goodly amount of Americans we’re told, that in bin Laden’s graphic demise, we “are reminded of our country’s greatness.”

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times vaguely dismisses suggestions that even if his death were justified, bin Laden should have been tried and convicted of his crimes against humanity, and instead enthuses with everyone else, “we briefly celebrated one of the few clear-cut military victories we’ve had in a long time, a win that made us feel like Americans again—smart and strong and capable of finding our enemies and striking back at them without getting trapped in multitrillion-dollar Groundhog Day occupations.”

(That there have been only a “few clear cut military victories” in Afghanistan and Iraq might come as news to those fighting there. There has never been much question about winning battles, it’s the war we remain “trapped in,” and narcissistic establishment pundits like Ms. Dowd have done nothing for the last 10 years to help us get out of it.)

Nevertheless, the Republicans, lest they let the liberals run home with the prize, are all about the water-boarding again, rolling out old Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove and others to try to out-tough the tough guys and grab the credit for the amazing Osama search and kill.

In a laughable but not atypical right-wing column last week, Mark Thiessen takes top honors by demanding Obama apologize to the CIA for not believing in their harsh interrogation methods: “That is the least Obama can do for the men and women responsible for the crowning achievement of his presidency. They don’t deserve a special prosecutor, Mr. President. They deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Suddenly Jack Bauer of the heretofore-canceled Fox drama series 24, which for all of the producers’ repeated denials, justified the undermining of the Constitution and international conventions in the pursuit of Islamic terrorism, once again personifies our national ambitions, the beau ideal American leader. So, it would seem, we’re back to square one: who has the biggest pair? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

Osama bin Laden: the gift that keeps on giving.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.