WASHINGTON — The flag-waving, horn-honking crowd that converged at the White House Sunday night was brimming with unrestrained joy, unmitigated patriotism and a sense of unlimited possibility — which meant Osama bin Laden had suffered not only death but defeat as well.

Thousands had come to witness and celebrate history. Many, perhaps most, were college students who had been in elementary school when deluded fanatics, indoctrinated and dispatched by bin Laden, crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa. But there were also older men and women who had lived through that unforgettable day as adults. Some brought young children for whom Sept. 11, 2001, would never be more than an answer on a history test.

I spent an hour mingling with that crowd. A man who saw me taking notes came up and announced, “We’re from Dallas!”

Ram Rodriguez, 41, and a group of co-workers at Southwest Airlines happened to be in the Baltimore area on business. They had just finished dining at a restaurant in Annapolis, on the Chesapeake Bay, when they heard the first radio reports that President Obama was about to speak to the nation and that bin Laden had been killed. So instead of going back to their hotel, they piled into their rental car and sped to the White House “to be a part of history,” Rodriguez said. “This is the beginning of peace — that’s what I’m hoping for. The last 10 years were one chapter, and now that’s over. I’m here to celebrate the beginning of a new era.”

John Greenfield rode his bike to the White House; he said he lives just 10 blocks away. He grew up in Minnesota and was in the seventh grade when 9/11 happened. Now he works as a consultant here, and he said he came to join the crowd because Sunday night felt like “a turning point for the country.” We’ve been stuck in gridlock, he said, and maybe now we can find a way to break free.

I kept hearing that theme of turning a page. In a sense, we had been prisoners of bin Laden. Now we’re free.

For me, news of bin Laden’s death brought back visceral memories of the Tuesday morning that changed the world — and changed all our lives. Once again, I could feel the shock, the pain, the anger. I could feel the emptiness.

I was then an editor at The Washington Post, so of course I had work to do. In the newsroom, we watched in stunned disbelief as the towers came down. There was relief at hearing that my wife and two sons had made it home from work and school safely; shock at the unimaginable loss of innocent life; adrenaline-fueled exhilaration at the challenge of marshaling resources to cover a story of incomprehensible size and scope.

That Saturday, my first son was to begin his freshman year at the University of Chicago. Commercial air traffic was grounded, so we had to go by car. I’ll never forget the helplessness I felt as I left him in a new and unfamiliar place, halfway across the country, and then made the long, lonely drive home. There was nothing on the radio but continuing coverage of the terrorist attacks. Then, finally, a piece of music: Conductor Leonard Slatkin was leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a commemorative performance of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” one of the saddest and most elegiac pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I had to take the next exit and pull over. I couldn’t see through my tears.

That was how it began. On Sunday night, in the emotional sense, it ended.

There will be more terrorism. Al-Qaida is not dead, and in fact may redouble its efforts at mayhem. But there has been a definitive change. Bin Laden was more than a piece of unfinished business. He was a constant, if rarely acknowledged, presence in our lives. He was there when we took off our shoes at the airport, there when we drove past the Pentagon, there when we saw a picture of the New York skyline.

As long as bin Laden remained at large and unaccountable, he retained the power he had so cruelly usurped on 9/11. On Sunday, those who gathered at the White House were celebrating our psychological liberation.

The changes in our lives will endure, but the man responsible for those changes is gone at last.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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