By Martine Powers

WASHINGTON, 8:25 a.m. — Entering the silver gate entrance onto the mall was a chaotic process. The atmosphere, though exhilirating, was also mildly warlike. Police cars on every corner, choppers dotting the sky, militant chants and the occasional primal scream. If you didn’t know better, Obama’s inauguration could seem like a conflict zone — if only everyone weren’t smiling.

As the gates opened and ticketed inauguration-goers swarmed onto the mall, one older black man, bundled up in his Obama sweatshirt, shouted: ”free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last!” The crowds raced toward the best viewing spots, climbed onto trees and unfolded their blankets. Then we stopped — the mad dash was over — and now we are left to wait. The sun has risen over Capitol Hill, reflecting off the ivory columns of the rotunda, and behind us, the Washington monument glints majestically.