There were cheers outside the White House, and tears outside the Pentagon.
As news spread through Washington that Osama bin Laden had been killed, many people gravitated to the two locales, as if the enormous emotions inside them were too great to experience in the privacy of their own living rooms.
Hundreds rushed from bars and restaurants near the White House in a spontaneous display of jubilation, dancing and cheering “USA!” At least one climbed a tree to get a better view. Two women who looked like cheerleaders were propped on the shoulders of young men as a crowd cheered and danced. In all, several thousand, felt compelled to gather there.
“I know this is kind of morbid, but it stands for a lot more,” said Paul Johnson, 28, of Chevy Chase, who was at Clyde’s restaurant late Sunday night when he saw the news that bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, had been killed in an American operation in Pakistan.
“It’s more of a symbol of bringing closure,” Johnson said, to a nation in distress.
The elation along Pennsylvania Avenue stood in marked contrasted to the intense welter of emotions that swelled across the river, where a small group of about 15 people gathered at the Pentagon.
Ray Callas leaned against a concrete wall and wept as he stared at the dozens of statues that honor the 184 lives lost when an airliner slammed into the building on Sept. 11. The anesthesiologist, visiting from Beaumont, Tex., came in a limousine with his wife, Lisa, after hearing President Obama’s speech.
“I had to come out and pay homage to all the people that didn’t have to die,” Callas said.
Callas, who served on a Navy submarine during the Persian Gulf War, said that for veterans like himself, the news marked a “somber moment” and not a time for wild celebration. Still, he didn’t mince words regarding what he hopes will be bin Laden’s fate.
“I don’t want anyone to go to hell, but this guy needs to go to hell,” Callas said. “He’s finally meeting his maker; let God decide.”
Outside the White House, many who gathered were still in primary school during the terrorist attacks of 2001. They came of age in an era of security checks, color-coded terrorist threats and warfare.
In the dormitories of George Washington University, where students were cramming for finals, a student screamed: “Bin Laden is dead!”
Seconds later, dozens of students, many in shorts and flip-flops, became the first wave of the celebration outside the White House. A much larger crowd congregated at ground zero in New York, where two airplanes flew into and demolished the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
“I feel like relief,” said GWU freshman Molly Nostrand, 19, who was a fourth-grader on Sept. 11 and was among the first to arrive outside the north gate of the White House. “After 10 years, it’s a sense of closure, in a way.”
The first few dozen who arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue roared out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Some waved American flags. Others had managed to put together signs, including one that said: “Ding, Dong, Bin Laden is Dead.”
Another placard struck a more solemn tone: “We Will Never Forget.”
“I think it’s an accomplishment for the U.S. of A.,” Richard Indoe, 73, a farmer from Ohio, said shortly after filming a few seconds of the celebration using a flip cellphone. “Too bad this didn’t happen during George W. Bush’s time.”
Some took stock of the toll terrorism has taken in the past decade.
“It’s very emotional for us,” said British tourist Sara Powell-Davies, 39. She explained that a friend’s sister had been among dozens killed in the al-Qaeda inspired attack in London’s subway in July 2005.
Around midnight, the crowd outside the White House had mushroomed to at least a few thousand people. By 5 a.m., the group had dispersed. In the hours in between, the air of revelry struck some as inappropriate.
“No death is something to be joyful about,” said John Baranowski of Central Valley, N.Y., who was in town on business.
“It brings back terrible memories,” he said, standing alone on the south side of Lafayette Square. “I see that most of the crowd is much younger than I am. I am more circumspect about it. I still remember the deaths of those 3,000 people.”
Staff writers Martin Weil, Jennifer Buske, Annys Shin and Mike Debonis contributed to this report.