Outside the White House on V-OBL Day

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 2 2011 3:37 AM

Outside the White House on V-OBL Day

WASHINGTON -- The sprinting started a few blocks away from the White House. Groups of friends parked their cars wherever they felt they could get away with it; troupes of college students from American University, GWU, George Mason and other schools bolted out of the nearest Red and Orange metro stops. They ran, or skated, or literally skipped toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Their soundtrack came from cars that blasted anything vaguely patriotic -- "I Am A Real American," "Born in the U.S.A.," even Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Evan St. John, a law student at GWU, walked a little slower as he mused about what had really happened. He was heading to the White House, he said, "to see how people were reacting," not really to join a flash mob.

"Symbolically, it's a big victory," St. John said, "even though bin Laden's leadership has been transferred to other people. Politically, it's a great victory. Any time you have a moral victory like this, there are repercussions, and you can't tell what they'll be."

Approaching the White House, St. John got lost in the crowd, which was filling all the space in front of the building. It used to be that the road between LaFayette Park and the White House was navigable by cars. After 9/11, it was reconstructed as a sort of patio, with security posts at either end which could be lowered for official business. Security was usually tight. The rules were being gently waived. Revelers were climbing the trees right next to the White House's gate, and some of them had draped a massive American flag on the other side of that gate.

There was an older, more sedate portion of the crowd, mostly people who'd come from bars. Lucas Smith, a Pabst Blue Ribbon marketer, had been in a bar about 10 blocks away with friends when the news broke. Everyone at the bar had been handed shots of Jack Daniels, and then another round of shots.

"Normally you'd get shots of Jameson," he said. "But the thinking was, no: We need to drink something American."

Still, the bulk of the crowd had come from colleges. Between cheers, they talked about how they'd heard the news.

"I saw someone change a status on Facebook," said Tim Nicholson, an international relations student at AU, who was 9 on 9/11. "I didn't know if it was true. As soon as more outlets reported it, I headed down here."

Brianna Musselman, a fellow AU student, was aghast at what she saw. She held up her cell phone and filmed the students signing songs and hoisting each other on their shoulders. She got teary-eyed as she did it, arguing with a group of fellow AU students.

"What are we celebrating?" she said. "This isn't the end of terrorism. A person is dead."

Nicholson turned to her.

"If he were captured," he said, "and not killed, we'd be doing the exact same thing."

"Then they did we kill him?"

An older group of people brushed past them; a man in a Capitals jersey interjected.

"He's dead!" he said. He broke into stage laughter. "Ha ha ha ha! I'm grateful for it!"

Musselman and Nicholson had a civil disagreement; one of the other students urged her not to make a scene, and she didn't. She just wanted the revelers to keep perspective and stop gloating.

"Terrorists don't need a figurehead that the media promotes," she said. "I feel like he [bin Laden] was the scapegoat for a lot of stuff that happened."

More people piled into the park to celebrate. The smell of cigar smoke was everywhere. Scott Talan, a professor at AU, opened up his second cigar of the night while leaning against a fence and taking in the panorama of celebrations.

"It's a two-cigar kind of night," he said. "I actually walked from my house to hear smoking the first one. I wanted time to digest all of this and walk past the history, take it in." He wasn't predicting some end to terrorism as a result of bin Laden's death. "It's really just nice for the United States to accomplish something we've been trying to do," he said. "It brings closure, and a lot of people needed closure."

The crowd remained shockingly young, and excitable. Huge cheers went up whenever someone clambered up a true, or whenever someone waved one of the multiplying American flags. There were even bigger cheers when people appeared dressed in costume. A "Spider-Man" raced a few students up one tree. A man in a green bodysuit posed in front of flags. One reveler waved a replica of Captain America's shield. When the first signs appeared, they were references to pop culture: "America, Fuck Yeah" (from Team America ) and "Ding Dong, bin Laden is Dead" (this should be obvious). Signs were made out of pizza boxes, maps, and calenders -- whatever had been sitting around. Some people hauled out Obama '08 signs, and when asked about them said they wanted to salute the commander-in-chief.

There was a break in the kitsch. One man right next to the White House gate held up a picture of a young man in uniform and a folded flag -- the kind of flag given to a family upon the death of a soldier. The man holding this was Thomas Cowen , a security contractor, and the man in the photo was Sumner, his late son. Sumner had fought in Iraq, gotten injured, and been sent home. While home, he took his life. When he heard the news about bin Laden, Thomas felt like there had been "vindication" for his son.

"My boy did what he needed to do," he said. He went on to talk about how proud he was that bin Laden was killed by Americans, and as he talked, he was constantly interrupted by young revelers tapping him on the shoulder and thanking him.

"I'm very glad that our special operations forces -- thank you very much -- that our special forces -- thank you -- are the ones that got him."

The crowd started to thin after 2 a.m. The people who stayed longest, and the new additions, looked to be enjoying the pure victory of the moment. Members of Georgetown's basketball cheer team stood on one another's shoulders and led cheers. The non-official cheers, added to the constant choruses of "Na Na Na (Kiss Him Goodbye)" and "God Bless America," got braggier. A woman whose sign read "We Get 'em Every Time USA" emphasized that as the crowd and cameras followed her "We f**king got him! We got him!"

Another woman got even more attention; a Swedish TV camera lingered on her for a while. She'd drawn caricatures of the presidents of Iran and Syria. The slogan next to them said ' Nejad and Assad should be NEXT .

(Photo by David Weigel.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.