9/11: One Year Later  
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Bin Laden Merchandisers Cash In

Bin Laden products, from Al Qaeda condoms to the Osama pinata, are selling like hotcakes. Are the merchants of these terrorist trinkets patriots or profiteers?
 
 
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Can't you just picture it?

Osama bin Laden, AK-47 in hand, has been hanged.

A blindfold is put around the eyes of the birthday boy, an eager 8 year old. A wooden bat is placed in his hands.

The boy approaches the hanged figure and swings. He misses. Swings again. Hits. The terrorist spins, silently, on his makeshift noose.

And the roomful of children cheer, as their parents look on with pride at the fallen Osama pinata.

The object of the pinata game, we all know: Children continue whacking at a paper maché character until it breaks apart and candy spills everywhere. The kids run amok trying to collect the most candy, and the game ends. At least, that's how it used to be.

In this scene, the once-innocent game has taken on a demonic tinge. To some, the image of children whacking at a terrorist until he explodes into a candy-filled blast is horrid; the thought that someone is making money off of this creation, frightening.

To others, images like this are acceptable, even "cute." Children taking out their aggressions on this symbol simply means they're growing up American, proud and strong.

Who's right?

Who knows?

After discussing the proliferation of items like the pinata with experts in marketing, culture and psychology, it's become clear: The line between patriotism and profiteering is paper-thin.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, red, white and blue began coloring our nation as a wave of patriotism swept across the country. The patriotic corporate campaigns became commonplace: General Motors came up with "Keep America Rolling"; Ford used "Ford drives America"; For Coca-Cola, it's "We live as many, we stand as one." And red-blooded American capitalists were selling the American flag in everything from gas stations to liquor stores.

Now, two months later, the Stars and Stripes remain. But something else has crept into storefronts and onto Web sites across the nation. Call them terrorist trinkets, Al Qaeda kitsch, salacious souvenirs. Whatever name you choose, entrepreneurs and Web masters have extensively expanded their product lines in the last eight weeks to include violent merchandise and video games. They've chosen such illustrative URLs as blowshitup.com, kissmyUSbutt.com, f-osama.com, f-usama.com, nukeafghanistan.com, osamayomama.com, makempay.com, killosama.com, and fuqafghanistan.com.

Their wares also run the gamut of tastelessness and tackiness, with a variety of anti-Osama bin Laden pinatas, toilet paper, condoms, coffee mugs, T-shirts, dartboards, video games, slogans, and anything else their brains could come up with -- and their pocketbooks could cash in on.

The hatred that Americans are feeling and the way they're expressing it is similar to what's going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they're burning effigies of President Bush. But Americans are also taking advantage of one of the things the Al Qaeda is attacking: capitalism. And whether or not you believe these entrepreneurs are exploiting a national tragedy, they're still doing it well.

Reactive Prophylactics

Jeff Weiss has decided it's time for America to say "screw you" to Osama bin Laden, so he's making Al Qaeda condoms for all to buy. Sound like every woman's sexual fantasy? Doubtful. A quick way to make a buck? Possibly.

Weiss, a resident of South Orange, N.J., is one of hundreds of manufacturers of bin Laden merchandise.

"It's serving a dual purpose: It's putting this guy down in the ultimate way ... and yes, I'm trying to make some money, too," Weiss says. "This is the American way. It's capitalism."

Weiss says he selected the condom from hundreds of thousands of items on which to put bin Laden's face. His Web site, www.hotlogo.com, boasts more than a million "imprintable" products, meaning that you pick the product, send him your logo or whatever you want printed on the product, and there's your personalized item.

The condom just seemed right.

"Condoms are like, you know, a funny thing," he says. "I'm thinking of having his picture in color with a target (on top of it). I believe most people would save it as a collector's item. The other idea (from Wireless Flash News) is to put the wrapper in the toilet and use it for target practice, you know what I'm saying? Maybe a woman would not be as accurate as a man."

He expects the product to be ready within the next week, and says he may donate some of the proceeds to help out victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

"I'd like to make some money," he says. "But I'd like to have a good rip on this guy, too."

The Marketplace

A few shops around town offer bin Laden trinkets, but the Internet undoubtedly boasts the best variety. Here, the variety of toilet paper alone is extensive. For example, at wipewithbinladen.com, you can choose from three slogans: "Wipe out bin Laden"; "If he wants to attack he can start with my crack"' or "If your butt gets to cloddin' just wipe with bin Laden." Then there's Makempay.com, with four choices, each with a picture of Osama: "Osama ...Yo Mama!"; "bin Laden, been hidin? Time's up! You lose!"; Osama ... you look flushed!"; and "Ready or not ... Here we come!" At kissmyusbutt.com, there's the less creative "Wipe out terrorism." And that's just the beginning.

The T-shirt variety far exceeds toilet paper offerings. OsamaYoMama.com sells its namesake logos, as well as "Bitch Gear" -- with Osama's picture covered by the word "bitch" -- and other items that read "Thrax 'em back." Bin-Laden-T-shirts.com sells a "Wanted dead not alive" shirt. Cachebeauty.com has Osama's picture with a bulls-eye drawn through it. And dozens of other sites have come up with catchy phrases and pictures designed to attract credit-card holders.

Then there are the trinkets. Brotherguido.com has voodoo dolls. SubmarineStore.com has National Rifle Association shooting targets. Other sites offer golf balls, underwear, sweat pants and hats. There's even Osama porn out there.

These products disgust Jim Gath, CEO of Las Vegas' Mojave Moon Marketing and Entertainment. He refuses to jump on the terrorist-trinket bandwagon, and says that selling these products is exploitative and wrong.

"What happens is, a lot of entrepreneurs play on people's senses of patriotism," says Gath. "It happened during the Gulf War, too. Entrepreneurs are really entrepreneurs because they're out to make money and they really don't care about the bigger picture. Too many people in the American public feel they're doing their patriotic duty by buying these things. To me, they're just fomenting more and more bad feelings."

Gath wants more people to ask why so many people hate Americans, rather than blindly purchasing patriotic items. Buying knickknacks does little good for anyone, he adds, except the company profiting from the sale.

"People think they can hide behind some of this flag stuff or this overly patriotic stuff and they're done," he says. "That's all they have to do."

Gath agrees that those responsible for the attacks must be stopped, but says that people need to look at our relationship with Afghanistan in a more discerning way. Rather than spending their time blowing up bin Laden in video games or searching for the newest line of terrorist toilet paper, Gath says that people should focus on understanding more about other cultures. That way, he adds, we can work towards eliminating a future full of terrorist acts.

"What people need to do is try to understand there are other people and other beliefs and other economic systems in this world and we ought to begin to study those, read the newspaper, watch TV and begin to understand other people," he notes. "That's not saying we shouldn't go apprehend the people responsible for this. But if we want this to stop this from happening in the future, we're going to have to look at it differently than we've been looking at it."

Shoot 'em Up, Slice 'em Up, Ra Ra Ra!

Anti-bin Laden video games have become another flavor of the day for vengeful Americans, with plots allowing users to cut, nuke, bomb, distort and shoot bin Laden. Some are frighteningly realistic.

Larry Gardner, CEO of CyberExtruder ( www.cyberextruder.com), a software company that converts photographs into three-dimensional characters (think The Sims), says his company started incorporating bin Laden's image on his Web site about two weeks after the attacks.

"Shortly after the attacks, one of my partners took a photograph of Osama bin Laden from the Internet and put it on a character in Unreal Tournament (a gladiator type of shooting game that is very popular all over the world). He was playing the game and taking his frustrations out on the bin Laden character when others noticed and asked for copies so they could do the same," Gardner notes in an email interview. "He noticed the minor relief it seemed to bring to others, so he posted it publicly to the Internet." Since the image was posted, more than 150,000 users have downloaded the files. Gardner says that since most Americans would like to wreak havoc on bin Laden themselves, doing so in a video game is helpful.

Robert Thompson, former president of the International Popular Culture Association and professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, agrees with Gardner. "There is so much anger out there and frustration, that as ugly as some of this is, it's a way for people to express it," says Thompson. "It's like a safety (valve) for some of this energy. Without outlets, anger could be vented in a much worse way than telling nasty jokes."

Thompson says that though not all of the products and video games out there are tasteful, they're certainly expected.

"There's some stuff that's obviously really, really creepy, it's so full of anger and hate and angst, but it was absolutely inevitable," he says. "We all saw the Saddam Hussein toilet seats during the Gulf War, and that war was so short, if you were doing your French homework one night you may have missed it."

Thompson points out that during World War II, there was a proliferation of songs and comic strips about Adolf Hitler. With the aid of the Internet today, our communication and marketing capabilities have expanded immensely, allowing anti-bin Laden material to spread much more quickly, making it difficult to compare today's proliferation with any unifying event in the past.

And though he says the products are a "frustrated ... attempt to vent in some way," he also views them as fairly healthy expressions.

"A lot of them are based on humor," he says, "and there is an extent to which humor acts as a lubricant and in some way a fire extinguisher to some volatile emotions, and there is a place for some of that stuff."

United in Anger, and Disposable Income

"Everyone's out to make a buck," says Dr. Robert Butterworth, an LA psychologist specializing in trauma.

While Butterworth isn't too fond of the terrorist trinkets, he, too, agrees that they fulfill a certain need. He explains that human response to trauma or tragedy starts with fear, and turns into anger. Entrepreneurs exploit these emotions.

Think about it: How many emails have you gotten that have tried to sell you Cipro or gas masks to exploit the anthrax anxiety that's circling the country? Those items prey on fear. The trinkets have progressed to the next stage.

"(These) things fulfill our needs for anger. Let's wipe our butt with bin Laden, that's what it means," Butterworth says, adding that some Americans feel as though purchasing these kinds of products is the only thing they can do.

"It's not like the Revolutionary War or the Civil War," he says. "You can't run to the closet and get a rifle and start shooting enemies. So we do it in a vicarious way."

And, strange as it may sound, buying all of this bin Laden crap is something that at least gives some Americans a commonality. "(Bin Laden) hated that we were having fun and I guess we're going to have fun with this," says Butterworth. "And as long as we're angry, as long as we're still doing this, we're all still united."

There is a line to be drawn, however, when this hatred crosses the racist boundary -- and in many places, it has. There are Web sites out there -- like allahsucks.com and deadarab.com-which are bigoted and hateful. And, well, if you take a look at the pinata featured in this story, its identity is certainly not limited to bin Laden. It looks like an Arab man in traditional dress. In this realm, Butterworth says that people have gone too far. He adds that the bin Laden items, whether they exploit a horrific tragedy or not, aren't dangerous.

Nevertheless, he stumbles when asked if producing these items constitutes a "healthy" reaction. "Healthy," he says, is hard to define.

"The merchandise and sales of the merchandise is a good indication of how we're feeling right now," Butterworth says. "If people are buying toilet paper and doing with it with bin Laden what you do with toilet paper, that's a very primitive way of saying how you feel."

Still, he doesn't like it.

"I hate making people rich on all this crap."