Sunday night, Americans rejoiced as news of Osama bin Laden’s death reached the news. After a decade of fighting with varying degrees of success, the United States had a landmark victory around which to rally. People flocked to Lafayette Square, on the north side of the White House, joining together in celebration and a true showing of patriotism.
What started as a crowd of 20-40 people soon grew to a few hundred and then a few thousand. It hardly mattered that it was well past midnight, as people continued to congregate around the White House, tossing around beach balls, waving flags, and constantly cheering well into the early hours, while chants of “U-S-A” and the singing of the National Anthem could be heard throughout D.C.
IWP is only 8 blocks from the White House, well-placed for such a momentous event. A number of students living in the area went down to share in the patriotic spirit that gripped the nation, some in celebration, others solemn as they felt a sense that justice had been served. All were curious and felt that this was a historic event.
Nathaniel Thomas biked from Adams Morgan, Reagan Sims walked from Columbia Heights, while another student from Virginia drove. Some heard through social media or texts from friends; others saw the crowds on the news and went to the join those congregating in front of the White House after Obama’s impromptu speech. One student found that, 16th street (which leads from IWP to the White House) “has never been so busy or noisy at 2 a.m. since I came to D.C.”
Horns honked and people cheered on the streets, including some IWP-ers on their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In the White House, lights in the East Room were still lit, and the revelers cheered whenever they saw a dark-suited figure open the front door and stand outside. It did not matter that it wasn’t the President; people were happy to celebrate the heavy symbolic blow struck against al-Qaeda and terrorism.
News crews were out in force, including foreign broadcasters, trying to get sound bites from those willing to speak. IWP student Chelsea Markle gave an interview to a Portuguese news service, exercising her language skills, while another student was approached by a Dutch news service. Nathaniel Thomas spoke with NBC7 and the Washington Times, stating that he was “glad this chapter is over,” and that the gathering “was a catharsis or boiling over – a pure demonstration of a collective will to celebrate the eradication of an ominous foe who was represented in Osama bin Laden. For my part, I was not celebrating, rather, standing in solidarity and being a part of history.”
Student Tim Coakley felt “fortunate to be in Washington D.C. for this historic occasion and knew I couldn’t pass up taking part.” Other students echoed this sentiment.
Chelsea said that she went down to the White House because she “knew it was history in the making. A history that I was a part of, in a big or small way, for most of my life thus far. I felt the extreme low that September 11 brought and how it destroyed families and took innocent lives, but I also knew that being at the White House, celebrating the successes of the United States, meant that I was also seeing how we can pull ourselves out of the ditch and live to fight another day. It was more symbolic than anything else.”
Reagan additionally wished “to be around the joy and pride of Americans at the capital who felt the same excitement for justice.”
This was a great victory for the CIA and human intelligence (HUMINT). As Professor Ken deGraffenreid teaches in his introductory Intelligence and Policy class, HUMINT is often undervalued in this technology-driven era, and is often tedious or uninformative, but that the most significant intelligence victories are often gained through HUMINT. It is invaluable because when it is good, HUMINT outweighs all other intelligence collection methods in its dividends. Reagan noted that one of the news services made a point of mentioning in the beginning of their broadcast that without the aid of the individuals on the ground cultivating sources, bin Laden might never have been located.
President Obama called bin Laden’s death and U.S. forces’ taking custody of his body “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda.” He also emphasized that this fight against terrorism is not over. CIA director Leon Panetta told his agency that terrorist groups around the world “almost certainly will attempt to avenge” bin Laden’s death and that we must remain vigilant.
That is why a school like IWP is needed. It teaches students the value of intelligence and perseverance, and educates future intelligence and national security leaders in statecraft. It took 10 years for bin Laden to be found, during most of which, there was a question as to whether he was even alive, which Chelsea notes, shows the “persistence of the American people to accomplish all that we set out to do… As [former] President Bush stated, eventually we would find him… We found him.”
Some students who went down to the White House question the repercussions the celebrations will have and worry that they will encourage extremist groups to lash out as a means of proving that they were not defeated by bin Laden’s demise. While one beaming student kept repeating, “we got him,” even through champagne toasts at the packed Old Ebbitt Grill, he acknowledged that the war was far from over and that extremism will not disappear as a result of bin Laden’s death.
Nathaniel comments, “the organization has definitely suffered a blow, but it remains a dynamic threat, and we will continue to need the assistance of our allies to help mitigate that threat in the region and to promote overall security.”
Terrorism cannot end with a single death, but Americans across the country, including IWP-ers, recognize the symbolic importance of bin Laden’s demise and the reality that we must remain vigilant.
-By IWP student Amanda Caligiuri
Photos by Daniel Sampson