Outside the White House, A Celebration of Osama Bin Laden's Death

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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!"

Osama Bin Laden

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?"

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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