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On Monday morning, tourists in the Capitol lined up, just as they always do, to see the building’s historic sights.
They came to see the Old Supreme Court Chamber, where Chief Justice John Marshall once held court. They came to see the stone slab catafalque on which both Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan lay in state.
But on this morning, many of the visitors had the feeling that they were part of history’s parade.
For many, a long-planned trip to the nation’s capital took on a new poignancy after news broke Sunday night that U.S. special operations forces had killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Sisters Ashley and Kristy Vassar sat outside the doors to the Capitol Visitor Center, waiting for their parents to join them.
The family, which hails from Memphis, Tenn., visited the Pentagon memorial to the victims of 9/11 on Sunday. That was a time to reflect, they said, on those who lost their lives that day and those who have died since in Iraq and Afghanistan. That night, they heard that bin Laden was dead, killed during a raid in Pakistan.
Kristy Vassar, 25, spent some time last year working with veterans returning from combat zones with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve seen a lot of these guys coming home with serious problems,” she said. “I’m just glad that what they did meant something.”
For others, the news of bin Laden’s assassination brought more practical concerns.
A group of tourists from Wisconsin, dressed head to toe in red, white and blue, stood outside the CVC doors. They celebrated the terrorist leader’s death but worried that it might trigger security concerns and that the Capitol would be shut down. Monday was their only day to visit the building, and they feared tighter security might keep them from their tour.
And inside the building, Patricia Copeland gathered with women from her Methodist church back home in Ruston, La. The women are staying at the Hilton Garden Inn, a few blocks from the White House, where revelers gathered Sunday night to cheer the al-Qaida leader’s demise.
The celebratory mood that took over the city Sunday night might have been fun to see, she said, but it had its drawbacks.
“I don’t think I got to sleep until three in the morning,” she said. “There were cars honking all night.”
Still, many of the tourists gathering in the CVC said they were glad to be in D.C. at a moment that history will remember.
Jaap Jong, a Dutch native who now lives in the United Kingdom, adjusted a camera around his neck, ready to capture images of the Capitol. He’s at the beginning of a two-month trip across the U.S. He and a friend are starting on the East Coast before flying to Chicago, where they plan to rent a camper and meander (“no GPS”) to San Francisco.
Jong says he was excited to be in Washington to share the moment. “I was happy to hear it,” he said. “Not just for the American people, but for the whole world.”
He’s not naive enough to think that bin Laden’s death would hobble terrorist forces, he says, but the symbolism is clear.
“He is an iconic figure and it’s a good thing he is out of the picture. And while it might have been a U.S.-led military operation that killed bin Laden, the victory benefits everyone. It’s important to the world that he’s out of the way.”