One of the most pernicious lies to emerge from the post-9/11 period is that America “came together.” Symbolically, perhaps we did — the flags flew everywhere, and we certainly talked a lot about national unity. But meanwhile, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. skyrocketed, and people of color were racially profiled. When you look for some statistical evidence of the attacks bringing public opinion into sharp alignment, there are maybe three areas of consensus: 1) Americans supported President George W. Bush (86 percent approval rating); 2) they were enraged (87 percent reported feeling angry); and 3) they wanted military action (77 percent).
As a 16-year-old at the time, I certainly didn’t revise my antipathy for Bush. If anything, I thought he should take some blame. I was less resistant to overall bloodlust, and like many adults who should have known better, I was confident in our ability to “find the people who did this.” How Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in October 2001, turned into the 20-year atrocity more blandly termed the Afghanistan War is now, of course, the subject of many retrospectives. What those roughly my age may recall more vividly than the details of that invasion are… the games.
Although Osama bin Laden wouldn’t claim responsibility for 9/11 until several years later, he and al Qaeda were immediate top suspects, and in the weeks and months that followed, programmers released an untold number of browser games where you shot, punched, maimed or tortured the terrorist leader. The more sophisticated titles allowed you to raid training camps or snipe unspecified Arab-coded characters from a distance. Portal websites including Newgrounds, Miniclip and Addicting Games grew every day with the addition of stuff built on the increasingly popular software platform Adobe Flash, which allowed users to design interactive animations.
You might even say that bin Laden, or his endlessly killable image, was a key factor in the rise of Flash entertainment to the height of its popularity in the mid-2000s. Smartphone games dominated after that, and Adobe ended support for Flash at the end of 2020, so these chintzy revenge simulators are mostly inaccessible now, except via the pull of nostalgia.
One only has to read the comments on the YouTube clips in which these novelties have been archived to confirm that kids spent many hours with them: “Wow the good old days,” “THIS WAS MY CHILDHOOD,” “I swear all of us didn’t even know what the game was about it was just fun.” Whether we retroactively claim innocence or not, my generation was drawn to this kind of Flash content by its transgressive nature — gore, guns and shattered taboos. (Among the most infamous examples of the genre is 2005’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, where you played as the Columbine High School shooters.) As such, the bin Laden games weren’t confined to military fantasy but went for shock humor and offensive stereotypes — often to the point of abandoning 9/11 as a motivation for retaliatory murder. To place him behind the counter at a convenience store, for example, was to borrow the air of “patriotic” fervor to excuse, essentially, a cartoon of a hate crime. That’s post-9/11 America.
And while the games projected violence that became all too real for people in the Middle East as well as groups xenophobically targeted in the U.S., they continued the themes of American exceptionalism that have always been our downfall. Reviewing them today, it’s fascinating how many start with the context that bin Laden has already been captured alive — like that was the easy part.
Take the one embedded above, Bad Dudes vs. Bin Laden, released on September 14th, 2001. It loads with a disclaimer from the creator, Tom Fulp, cautioning against the mistreatment of anyone presumed to be Muslim or Arab, then takes you to a screen that reads, “WE HAVE OSAMA BIN LADEN IN CUSTODY. ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO KICK HIS ASS?” Although wary of racist interpretations, Fulp didn’t seem to consider that bin Laden might elude U.S. intelligence for nearly a decade. We all expected swift and, as this game posits, very tidy justice, with no collateral damage, civilian deaths or destabilizing forever wars.
Even in this period of trauma, grief and vulnerability, we had the arrogance to ascribe conditions that precipitated a spectacular, ideological mass murder to a single, soon-to-be-strung-up fanatic — and to tell ourselves the world-historic upheaval would be efficiently, surgically resolved. Truly, as eye-opening as 9/11 was, we remained in complete denial. It is, perhaps, the same denial that allows us the false but comforting story of having joined hands across the country and embraced the better angels of our nature. The games, however, tell the truth of how we really felt — vicious contempt for the foreign “other,” and a determination to see him annihilated.