The surreal gathering to celebrate Osama bin Laden's death that spontaneously coalesced outside the White House was jubilant and fiercely American, but other than that, it did not know what it was
Walking through Washington's Shaw neighborhood, it almost seemed as if tonight was just another night. Few people were out. Most were attending to end-of-weekend business: taking out the trash, getting groceries. I hurried all the way down a quiet 7th from Q until I, when, on the border of Chinatown, I heard the screech of tires and a voice shout out to no one in particular, "Wooop! We got him!"
I finally flagged down a cab at New York and took it towards the White House. My cab driver was an old Ethiopian guy and at first he didn't seem too impressed by the whole affair. "We spent all that money to get him," he said. "Now we did it." But as we got closer to the president's mansion, people suddenly appeared in the streets, streaming towards the grounds. A man walked by with a huge flag, trailing a group of five or six friends. My cab driver began honking his horn and shouting, "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" out the window. They waved the flag. Fists were pumped. When we stopped, he realized he'd forgotten to put on the meter and said, "Just give me a couple bucks."
Back on the street, random shouts punctuated the air. People were literally running to get to the White House. No one was quite sure what they were going to do once they got there, but they were going to get there as fast as they could.
Some people wore pajamas. Others college-logo gear. There were even suits and a few blue blazers. All the variations of flag-based clothing were present and accounted for, too: Shirts with stars and stripes; a bikini with stars and stripes; shorts with stars and stripes. A flag wrapped around the shirtless torso was a popular look for men.
The area directly in front of the White House was a mob scene. Women sat on shoulders waving flags. Everyone held their cameras aloft and tried to capture the magic. A man next to me said, "It's like a Who concert or something." But there was no band, no focal point to the celebration. No one had anything to wait for, and yet, it seemed that everyone was waiting for something. Where were you supposed to look? What were you supposed to do? Who was running this thing?
Maybe for that reason, the roving television cameras seemed best at structuring the crowd's attention for short periods. Whenever they flipped on, a crowd would swarm in front of them like fans of the Duke Blue Devils basketball team, the Cameron Crazies. But instead of yelling about the hardwood, these kids were chanting U-S-A, U-S-A and celebrating the death of the most notorious enemy of America. It was as if all those drunken Georgetown games had been training for this moment in front of the world's roving cameras. Yes, America and all its youths are happy that Osama Bin Laden is dead! We are so happy that when a television camera's electronic eye interrogates us about our feelings, we can do nothing else aside from scream and pump our fists and scream some more! I even saw some people even giving the "We're number one!" sign of holding up the index finger. We're number one? Because we killed Osama Bin Laden?
The college kids seemed best at this kind of aimless celebrating. Or at least they were drunk enough to lead. They climbed trees and snapped flags through the air. They shouted. They carried each other on their backs and took smiling pictures in front of the White House. Luckily, Facebook will tag the date on those photos lest the subjects be left wondering, "Was that the day we beat UNC or the day we killed Osama?"
The college kids also started most of the chants. The most disturbing to me was probably, "Nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey hey hey goodbye." If you're a basketball fan, you'll recognize that chant as what you do when a guy fouls out. Baseball fans might hear it was what you rain on an opposing pitcher when he's forced from the game. Neither of these chant-analogies seem at all appropriate for the killing of America's greatest foe. The same goes for the Georgetown fight song, which broke out several times, and received actual boos from some passing American University students, who contemplated being able "to take" the Georgetown kids.
Everyone seemed to be confusing the occasion with other times that they'd been in large crowds of like-minded individuals. On a half-dozen occasions, different Washington Capitals hockey fans started the "C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps" chant. On the other end of the spectrum, a random activist brought a large Algerian flag into the center of the American flag area. When asked why he had an Algerian flag, he said, "Because Algerians have fought with Americans in the war on terror," but I figured that maybe it was the only flag that he had, and flags were a most sought-after accessory.
The only thing more popular than flags were picture-taking devices, be they cellphones or cameras. Everyone was recording the moment, not just the dozens and dozens of news types like myself.
Away from the center of the crowd, some people seemed to be contemplating the moment more deeply. Twos and threes sat on the grass, talking and taking in the spectacle. I watched two older African immigrant ladies clutch each other, staring at the bright White House for several minutes in silence. Unlike most of what was happening around them, they seemed to recognize the undercurrent of seriousness that should have marked the occasion. We were there to celebrate a death. We were there to celebrate a victory in our ten-year's war on one man and the organization he built. This was not anything like winning the big game.
I did not think the spontaneous party outside the White House was our finest hour. But that's not to say that the proceedings could not have been redeemed. When Barack Obama was elected president, I was living in San Francisco, and it being an Obama stronghold, his win was greeted with joy. Hipsters filled the intersection at 19th and Valencia. Happy people hugged and shared beers. People did dumb things. Then, a young man climbed up on his friend's shoulders with a silver trumpet and started to play the most beautiful rendition of "America the Beautiful" I've ever heard. The crowd went silent and stared and listened. For all of the partisan joy people felt, that song was about America as a whole, and that moment served to remind the Obama supporters exactly why they wanted their man in charge. They loved America, not just the win. What had happened was bigger than a changing of the party.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, I did hear a half-assed version of "America the Beautiful" sung once. A "Thank you troops! Thank you troops!" chant momentarily popped into existence, too. But there were no transcendent moments, no times when the crowd united to consider the greater significance of a free society's battle with its enemies and all the costs and victories thereof. Perhaps people did their own private accounting, but as a public, we were loud and boorish and silly. We treated the killing of a man who promoted the killing of thousands of Americans like a game with no consideration of the past or future costs. In other words, on night one in our nation's capital, Osama bin Laden's death did not change the face of the American body politic. We'll see if it has a greater impact on our politics.