Joining the Bin Laden celebration at the White House

Sunday, May 1
WASHINGTON — I had to see what it was like.

So I checked a map, left the comfort and quiet of my hotel room and strode a mile or so late Sunday night toward the White House, where thousands had gathered to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.

This was a significant chapter in history, and joining the euphoric masses was the most vivid way to cement this event personally in memory.

I walked mostly alone down H Street for about five blocks until I encountered two women heading for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. One of them, absolutely aglow with delight, informed me that her husband has been fighting in the Middle East for four years. This was a particularly special night for people like her.

With about six blocks to go I started passing groups of celebrants, mostly of college age, returning from the scene. They hadn’t quite had enough, though. Strangers were high-fiving each other and launching “U-S-A” chants.

Automobile traffic thickened as I neared 14th Street. Hundreds cheered as a fire truck passed, its horn blaring in triumph instead of warning. I passed a policeman who was speaking into a walkie-talkie; I overheard him saying something about “traffic control.”

Around 1 a.m. I reached the periphery of the White House, which gleamed in floodlights — in contrast, I had heard on TV, to its usual darkened evening state. I thought I had stumbled onto a frat party or a pregame tailgater. Virtually all of the revelers seem to have been trucked in from local college campuses. Men shimmied up lamp posts; women were hoisted onto the shoulders of male friends; dozens literally wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag. Groups spontaneously sang “God Bless America.” More “U-S-A!” chants rang out. Those with camera phones and flipcams took pictures of each other or simply trained their lens on the White House, which symbolized all that was good and great about America.

The last time I visited the White House was 2009, when I was fortunate enough to accompany the Giants on a special tour. During that excursion we met a couple of the sharpshooters who patrol the roof of the mansion to deter any sort of attack. So I probably was one of the few people who noticed that two of these ever-diligent sentinels stood atop the roof, surveying us. From a distance, they were shadowy and indistinct, but it looked like they were studying the crowd with binoculars.

The guards had no cause for concern. This was a boisterous yet well-behaved crowd. If you didn’t know Bin Laden had been killed, you might not have been able to tell what prompted all this fuss. “God Bless the U.S.A.” was the prevailing mood, not “Good riddance, Osama” — though everyone certainly was overjoyed to know that Public Enemy No. 1 had been taken down.

I didn’t stay long. A little less than a half-hour was enough to give me a memory for a lifetime.

Chris Haft

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