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If there is a ground zero for humor in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is perhaps found at, the Web site of the decade-old satirical newspaper the Onion.

After a self-imposed silence for two weeks after the attacks, the Onion returned on Sept. 26 with a ferociously funny issue that skewered everything from media coverage to God's supposed response to the attacks.

MTV's Carson Daly, Dan Rather, Jerry Bruckheimer and public-access programming all got a thorough drubbing. But front and center was an article with a headline that said:

"Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell. 'We Expected Eternal Paradise For This,' Say Suicide Bombers."

Datelined from the lowest plane of Na'ar, Islam's Hell, and written in crisp Associated Press style, the story quoted the numerous, medievally named demons now in charge of torturing for eternity the hijackers of the planes that slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers.

"It might actually be the most painful thing we can do, to show these murderers the untold pleasures that would have awaited them in Paradise, if only they had lived pious lives," said Praxitas, Duke of Those Willingly Led Astray. "I mean, it's tough enough being forced through a wire screen by the callused palms of Halcorym and then having your entrails wound onto a stick and fed to the toothless, foul-breathed swine of Gehenna. But to endure that while watching the righteous drink from a river of wine? That can't be fun."

On WEDG 103.3-FM, morning co-host Tom Ragan, on a dare, tried to read the story all the way through without laughing. He failed.

"It was brutal, but what a piece of work," he said later that day. "This is exactly what people are thinking. This is what people want to happen."

Rob Lederman agreed. "I'll tell you what that is: That is absolutely necessary. That is the release of poison -- the poisonous hatred we all feel, toward this group of people we can't even find. We don't really want to hate, but when we do hate, someone's gotta help us find the right button to hit, to let it all out."

The Onion site is full of "buttons" to be clicked on, offering up, among other features, a story headlined "U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're at War With," and another in which psychologists offer hopelessly complicated explanations for confused children ("As your child may or may not know, much of modern Islamic fundamentalism has its roots in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose two-year sojourn to the U.S. in the late 1940s ...")

By the end of that week, the Onion's Web site had recorded more hits than it normally does in a month. And, according to Onion staff writer John Krewson, who wrote the hijackers-in-hell story, some of the most grateful messages were from victims' loved ones."

"I got one from a guy who said: 'I lost three people that day. And you are the first entertainment or news operation since then who hasn't tried to gloss it over for me, or pretend no one's feeling like this. You hit it right on. Thank you.' "

"The issue was very high on gross-out, very high on vengeance, and it was, for a lot of people, very cathartic," said Krewson in a phone interview. "That doesn't necessarily lead to the best of human impulses. But it did mirror what a lot of us were thinking and feeling."
-- Lauri Githens