Jokes targeting bin Laden help a nation cope, experts say

Humor: Online videos, cartoons and jokes provide an outlet for many to vent their anger and deal with fear.

October 29, 2001|By Bill Hendrick | Bill Hendrick,COX NEWS SERVICE

Want revenge against Osama bin Laden?

Like millions of Americans, Tom Roberts does, and though too old to join the military, the Cobb, Ga., man finds himself fighting the enemy almost daily.

On the Internet.

"This is great," hoots Roberts, 47, clicking his mouse to shoot at a ducking, dodging bin Laden on an interactive video e-mailed by a friend. "I'm getting him good, and it feels great. I haven't laughed since Sept. 11. But this is funny."

The Bin Laden Liquors game is among scores of interactive videos, cartoon movies, rigged photos, jokes and songs flitting through cyberspace, most aimed at giving haunted Americans a way to vent their rage.

Experts say they're helping people who've felt frustrated, furious and helpless cope with their horrific, indelible memories of America's worst disaster.

"Listen at this," Roberts chuckles, opening an e-mailed attachment of a ditty called the Taliban anthem that plays to the tune of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song" (aka "Day-O"):

Day oh, day oh, Air Force come and they flatten your home.

Sixty-foot, 70-foot, 80-foot craters, Air Force come and they flatten your home.

Run Mr. Taliban, we know where you're hidin', Air Force come and they flatten your home.

The shooting gallery-like game Roberts plays shows the terrorist behind a store counter, darting around a gagged hostage and popping up at random. A hand appears, holding a pistol.

With the click of a mouse, players have a chance to shoot bin Laden, making him squeal as he explodes.

"Some people may feel guilty for playing these games, seeing the bin Laden images, the jokes, but it's actually healthy for most people," said Dr. Patricia Wheeler, an Atlanta clinical psychologist. "Although we're all still in mourning, these things produce humor, which can help healing. It's also a way of getting vengeance."

That's what prompted Jack Ives, 40, an executive with Cyber Extruder.com Inc. of Bethpage, N.Y., to create several bin Laden characters for the firm's Web site. Players can download the characters and use them in violent "shooter" games such as Quake 3: Arena or Unreal Tournament. The response was "gigantic" - more than 130,000 downloads.

The images were initially free, but starting today, the company is charging $5 for each version.

"We'll donate at least half the money to the September 11th Fund or the Red Cross," Ives said.

There are photos of bin Laden and a movie-style poster depicting a heavily armed President Bush over the words, "Paybax. Coming Real Soon. Real Soon."

A cartoon called "Diplomacy," begins with an image of what appears to be American "peaceniks" in Afghanistan holding a sign reading, "Al Qaeda, Let's Stop the Killing Together."

They meet Taliban soldiers burning an American flag (the flag-burner catches himself on fire). Later, the peaceniks sing "Kumbaya" as a sign of their earnestness. Then, it shows an X-ray image of bin Laden's chest, his heart pumping and morphing into an Old Glory while tears stream down his cheeks. As soon as he and his men drop their guns, the peaceniks rip off their disguises, revealing fatigues, and mow down the terrorists.

"Joking is a way of actually doing something in a situation in which one feels vulnerable," said Michael Dean Murphy, a University of Alabama anthropologist who has received bin Laden jokes from as far away as Spain. "The Taliban seems ripe for fun-making because from our Western point of view, they are ludicrous from every conceivable perspective. If Freud is correct, we tend to joke about that which worries us the most."

Judging by the hundreds of e-mailed jokes out there, many Americans are worried, he said. Dr. Christopher Peterson, a University of Michigan psychologist who specializes in humor, said some Americans "have a nagging sense that dropping bombs on Afghanistan may have unfortunate consequences, so telling jokes about the ruling party is a way to distance oneself from `collateral' damage to innocents."

And some, such as William Waugh Jr., a professor of policy studies at University of Georgia, worry that some e-mails "might encourage oversimplified views" of bin Laden and his followers.

That could be why at least one game, "Find the Terrorist" (www.markfiore.com/animation/fresh.html), invites players to "get the terrorist" and shows a series of fast-moving images of men, most wearing turbans or with dark skin. It turns out the real terrorist is a white teen-aged bully.

Shakir Talib-Din, 35, a spokesman for the Masjid Al Hedaya Islamic Center in Marietta, said the Internet jokes don't bother him - as long as they aren't anti-Islam.

"Most Muslims understand this," he said. "It's a way they feel they can vent their frustrations. I don't see the benefit to them, but most Muslims understand Americans are very upset."

Some of the e-mails disturb even those who are upset, including Roberts, because they're too risque.

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