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The limits of crowds

I was asleep last night when news leaked that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. I woke up shortly after President Obama’s speech, caught the news on Twitter, wrote a few things, read some blog posts, and tried to fall asleep.

When I woke up this morning, I had a note from Jason in my inbox:

Re: bin Laden, if you want to blog about him all day, go ahead. If you don’t want to mention him at all, that’s fine too.

I definitely don’t want to write about bin Laden all day. Here’s what I wrote last night. (It’s in a Storify thread, so you need to have JavaScript on to read it.)

I also watched Alexis Madrigal’s video of and reflections on the after-midnight crowd gathered outside of the White House:

The area directly in front of the White House was a mob scene. Women sat on shoulders waving flags. Everyone held their cameras aloft and tried to capture the magic. A man next to me said, “It’s like a Who concert or something.” But there was no band, no focal point to the celebration. No one had anything to wait for, and yet, it seemed that everyone was waiting for something. Where were you supposed to look? What were you supposed to do? Who was running this thing?

Maybe for that reason, the roving television cameras seemed best at structuring the crowd’s attention for short periods. Whenever they flipped on, a crowd would swarm in front of them like fans of the Duke Blue Devils basketball team…

Everyone seemed to be confusing the occasion with other times that they’d been in large crowds of like-minded individuals. On a half-dozen occasions, different Washington Capitals hockey fans started the “C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps” chant.

There are two things I think that it’s easy to forget:

  1. A crowd of people gathered together in public is a kind of media.
  2. Twitter is also a crowd of people gathered together in public.

And this is what media does: it squeezes your toothpaste through its tube. This is what big crowds do: they turn into crowd events.

Think about how big sports events actually usually wind up getting celebrated in this country: people are so excited about something big that’s happened that they go out into the street, and once they’re in the street, they start walking together, and before you know it, people have flipped over cars and set things on fire.

I’m not a psychiatrist or an apologist for stupidity, but I have to think the two things are related.

This guy โ€” this son-of-a-bitch who murdered thousands of people here ten years ago and helped murder many more all around the world โ€” has us so twisted up that we do not know how to feel about him, or ourselves, at all.

And our inability to come together, and to talk about that, which was already latent in the way our media work, and all the more amplified by what ten years of this twisting and torturing, and being twisted into torture and then lying about torture, only makes it worse.

I hope we can exorcise this man, his damage, and the damage he helped incite us to, from our lives. I have to hope that we have enough strength left in our democracy to do that. I have to have faith that the future will be better than today. And I have to have charity enough to forgive โ€” to feel something more than anger or irony or judgment, and to just finally give those things away.