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Terror, Not Terror photo

When they told us that the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, had been destroyed by a crude but powerful bomb — TERRORIST, they said, TERROR, with the same rote certitude of those who chant scripture from ancient scrolls — there was some confusion about how, exactly, we were supposed to react. Some of us cried and covered our mouths with a hand as we remembered seeing done after other attacks. Others fell to the ground and wailed, pounding at soil as if this act of terror had emerged from below, like a potato or tulip. The vast majority of us, though, were surprised to find ourselves laughing. The Corn Palace. Sad, of course, and terrifying, if they said so, but also zany. We shook heads and giggled secretly, feeling guilty but entertained.

The threat itself was not new. We had long been steeled to the notion of shadowy networks of men intent on the destruction of our satanic nation. Our minds shared a collective image of turbans and beards, men with Russian assault rifles living in faraway caves, plotting their ongoing campaign of fiery terror. These were extremists, yes, who wanted us, yes, and our nation, sure, to die. The whole big thing. By now we had adjusted to being hated so widely. What we didn't know was that they had interest in our national kitsch. And plus! Couple the term explosion with the termCorn Palace and you'll forgive us for picturing a thousand subsequent eruptions, loud and white and weightless, showering the streets of small-town Mitchell with fluffy, unsalted popcorn. And so we laughed, and joked, and someone brought up the movie Real Genius, and we all shook our heads and said, NOW we've seen EVERYthing.

So you can imagine our reaction when, weeks later, we awoke to find another red stripe across the top of our CNN.com homepage. Graceland, in Memphis, nine dead, the old mansion reduced to a smoldering rubble of mirror and carpet and gold record. Graceland? Was this some kind of metaphor? That outrageous old white house, that den of cocaine where a flabby rock star had once taken a shotgun to his TV, and then died so terribly constipated that his shit turned to ash inside of him? Oh terror! Oh humanity! How rich these bearded men's sense of the absurd. How reluctant our amusement. How curious we all were to see what they did next.

And when they kidnapped one of Angelina Jolie's many children — a clear tip of the cap to Raising Arizona — and began posting YouTube videos of that unfortunate spike-haired little Cambodian boy, cute and lively in his makeshift cell, laughing and smiling at his captors until that moment they cut off his little head, the comment section below was split between praise and horror. "Totally hilarious!" one read. "You should be ashamed," said another. "I love dark humor of this sort. Thanks for posting!" came a third.

And this of course was when the machine took notice. Having attacked our structures financial and political, having waged a holy war against our troops abroad, this new version of terror revealed a sensibility and taste for the absurd, a deft ironic touch and attention to detail that sent Hollywood scurrying, tracking the men to an abandoned brothel deep in the Nevada desert. And when they arrived it was not with guns drawn that they broke down the whorehouse doors, but contracts written, pens extended. A three season deal for an hour-long situational drama-comedy of the Six Feet Under sort, perks and bonuses over which other writers would drool, even kill. The terrorists signed immediately, and were thus ushered into the protective arms of our nation's premier legal teams. The evidence against them was technically circumstantial — a few pipes, some fertilizer, an empty cage... nothing they hadn't beaten before.

Of course we all knew what these men had done. And we might, at weak moments, even have felt a tinge of responsibility for what had happened. If we hadn't laughed, we wondered, would these terrorists be behind bars, being waterboarded or whatever? Who knows! Though we all know how important it is to forgive yourself, and soon we forgot all about the part these hilarious bearded TV men played in the terror. Because if you've seen their show, I mean, I don't have to tell you. It's damn funny. It's like one of the best shows on TV right now, I'm not even kidding.

image: Ryan Molloy