Maybe you’ve heard, Osama bin Laden was killed yesterday. The People of Twitter told me so. Or at least, told me I should step away from my computer and sit back down in front of my television to watch a press conference. But the press conference didn’t air when they said it would, so I started losing interest. I flipped through channels and caught scenes from a show called Saddle Ranch on VH1 that briefly set me in a panic about the future my children will inhabit. Fist-fighting strippers, angry bartenders, tales from a scantily clad present-day dystopian steakhouse. It distracted me long enough to miss half of the President’s address. Though I knew the gist: Jihadist #1 was dead. Cue the nationwide death party.

New York took it to the streets first, massing at Ground Zero in a celebration of inebriated nationalism. U-S-A! U-S-A! and all that comes with it. Sailors mounted telephone poles; women screamed and lifted their shirts; and of course, fashion statements were made. It seemed a bizarre spectacle, as the The New York Observer‘s Azi Paybarah wrote:

The ground was littered with empty beer bottles, crushed Four Loco cans and torn open cases of Budweiser. At one point, a man sitting on top of a pay phone got the crowd to cheer “USA aint nothing to fuck with,” modifying a popular Wu-Tang Clan song from the late 1990s. Later, on top of that same pay phone, were two men in red kilts. Blowing into bag pipes, they belted out the song Amazing Grace.

To celebrate death the same way cities do Superbowl championships or World Series titles feels uncommon, even for America. Looking at the death party photographs from New York and Washington D.C., it feels inevitable that it could all be reduced to a Tumblr/Blogspot/Wordpress site called “Osama Death Mob or Sports Victory Celebration?” And in truth, such treatment might be met with unflinching approval. It’s hard to know.

The scene in Washington D.C. echoed the sentiment in New York, but mobs of people draped in flags at the gates of the White House looked alien. When was the last time a celebration erupted on this stately stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue? The high so many felt from that raucous inauguration wore off long ago; leaving lots of regret and political (and economic) depression in its wake.

At Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, students filled the streets in a celebration that could not “possibly be described in words,” according to John Tecce:

Following President Obama’s announcement that US Special Forces have killed Osama bin Laden, thousands of students gathered on Beaver Avenue between McAllister and Garner streets to celebrate the event. Costumed characters crowd surfed down the street, students shot off fireworks, papers were thrown from balconies, and even a small fire was started in Beaver Canyont.

Though Tecce may have had a hard time summing up the experience in words, this photo gives the impression the Nittany Lions have just won the national championship. But death parties seem to be strange that way, stirred by an emotional current that nobody really understands.

“It’s weird to celebrate someone’s death,” 22-year-old Laura Cunningham told the Observer‘s Azi Paybarah. “It’s not exactly what we’re here to celebrate, but it’s wonderful that people are happy.”

What Cunningham says may sound simplistic, but it holds truth. To the nation, the death of Osama bin Laden seems to represent more than retribution for the attacks of September 11th. Perhaps Americans are so euphoric because the government, with all its flawed and hobbled machinery, has finally accomplished something. And at this point, it doesn’t much matter what that something is. Maybe we are astounded that a campaign promise that had become stale with age has miraculously (and violently, how else) been honored.

Perhaps we all just want to have some reason to be happy (and share that happiness with a large crowd), and if a death party is all we get, well, let’s make the most of it. Given the heartache wrought by bin Laden and company, witnessing such a weirdly joyous public reaction to death may be, after all, not all that weird.

Originally published by Thought Catalog in May of 2011. Illustration by Surian Soosay.

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