Osama bin Laden built a global movement around the fever dream of martyrdom. His death is unlikely to end that dream—sober reflection (the party pooper) says we’ll be removing our shoes at the airport for years to come. Nonetheless, the erasure of bin Laden has already made its psychological mark on the home front: The story we tell ourselves about our country has a new twist—the wheezing American leviathan, it turns out, still has a gift for ruthless persistence. Somehow we seem less decadent than we did last week.
This brings us, as all things must, to Las Vegas. Even in the best of times, the Strip is fueled by the American dream of escape from self, but never more so than when times are bad and escape becomes a sort of cultural survival tactic.
When bin Laden’s henchmen attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, our media swiftly decided that the nation had entered a new age of cultural moderation. Our countrymen, we were told, would henceforth dispense with Seinfeldian irony, drop the tabloid TV and eat home-cooked holiday dinners with Mom rather than flying to Vegas.
In the decade of geopolitical chaos and economic slip-’n’-slide that followed, Las Vegas never hosted fewer than 35 million visitors in a year. And the worse things became Out There, the more brashly Vegas pitched its narrative of self-abandonment. In a ruinous world, the city banked on the romance of ruin. Its most notorious advertising campaign, grown in the shadows of the Iraq War, invited Americans to come to town and commit unspeakable acts. All in good fun, of course. It was a sly nod to the national id, the dark American comedy and the stories you shouldn’t tell but do anyway.
Few cities take the cultural pulse more assiduously than Las Vegas. The last time America felt good about itself, the town built a pyramid and an emerald city and invited you to bring the kids. But when the nation’s feeling low, Vegas decorates itself like a space-age boudoir: dim nooks, red light, curvaceous spaceship furniture with accents in red velvet—part Victorian fetish, part post-nuclear fuck-it-all, a sort of nostalgic erotic futurism.
This was the Vegas of the bin Laden era, a city constructed from the narrative pheromones it sent out to a nation in need of textual healing. For 10 long years, Dark Vegas was a therapeutic response to the dimming of the American light. In its peculiar, stage-managed way, the Strip made a mockery of control by celebrating the loss of it.
Now, just when it appeared we could scarcely maintain order in our own statehouses, comes this bracing reminder of American competence. It’s possible that the uplift that followed the raid on bin Laden’s compound was just a historical sugar rush. But if the national mood is indeed changing, the Vegas story will change with it. And years from now we can look back with perverse pride on the anxious age when America turned to the Strip to find the bright side of its inner darkness.