WASHINGTON — A Virginia woman makes a point to get out and go jogging. A Texas mom stays in and snuggles her toddler a little closer. A nurse from Massachusetts looks over her shoulder more often while touring D.C.
Strains of defiance, tenderness and wariness are interwoven as Americans are forced to do some post-9-11 rebalancing in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, figuring out how to move forward with life while remaining vigilant against the threat of terrorism.
The discovery of tainted letters sent to the Capitol and the White House only added a new source of jitters to the week's events, evoking eerie parallels to the anthrax attacks that followed the life-altering events of Sept. 11, 2001.
For Simone Rinaldi, playing tourist in Washington this week with her family, the twin bombings at the marathon quickly revived thoughts of the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York as she wondered anew if there would be other attacks and whether loved ones in Boston were safe.
"I've definitely been more cautious as we walk around," said Rinaldi, a nurse practitioner from Cape Cod, Mass.
Cautious, yes. But not cowed.
"The world is a really scary place, yet we have a life to live," she said from a park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. "The challenge is to take precautions, but again to not let our lives get small and live in fear."
Similar sentiment echoed around the country — from a Starbucks table in Los Angeles to a smoker's bench in Billings, Mont. — as people grappled with the balancing act involved in putting the week's events in perspective.
"Caution is always important, but so is life," said MacKenzie Edwins, a receptionist catching lunch at the Starbucks in LA.
Jennifer Miller, a hospitality industry manager smoking a cigarette on that bench in Montana, said the marathon bombing made her think this: "It's at home in America. It happened here." But also this: "I refuse to live in fear of going anywhere or doing anything."
Such perspective is precisely what terrorists try to destroy, by provoking reactions far out of proportion to actual danger.
Horrific as the bombing was — three people died in Boston, with more than 170 injured — five people die in car, truck or motorcycle accidents every hour in the U.S. Terrorism pushes our fear buttons, says security expert Bruce Schneier, and we have an outsized response.
"Psychologically, we are primed to overreact," he says.
And that can cause people to surrender civil liberties without full deliberation in pursuit of safety and stronger law enforcement, as happened after 9-11, Schneier warns: "The fear is that this is an excuse to put us into a police state."
Around the country, people wondered whether the bombing would — and should — affect security restrictions.
Security may increase for a time, but "the sad thing is it always goes back to normal," said Lynn Chamberlain, a training coordinator at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.
"Now we're going to have to raise up not only our national security but our local security," said Zeke Reardon, a Denver electrician.
Terrorism peaked as a public concern just one month after the 9/11 attacks. In October 2001, Gallup found that 46 percent of Americans called terrorism the most important problem facing the country, up from less than 1 percent in the days before the attack.
It has not reached that level of importance since, and in surveys this year, it once again stood at less than 1 percent.
But while it may not be Issue No. 1, security nonetheless remains a priority for most Americans. In a January 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent said defending against terrorism should be a top priority for the president and Congress, down just 5 points from four years earlier.
In Seattle, accountant John Calhoun laments that young people may be desensitized to the threat of terrorism in the post-9-11 environment. He was troubled that his children, ages 13 and 21, weren't more upset as they watched news about the marathon bombing unfold on TV.
"It's a different world than we used to think we lived in," Calhoun said, wearing a half-marathon shirt from a past race as he ran stairs at the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
Runners, in particular, seemed to push back against the notion that the marathon bombing could intimidate Americans.
Spontaneous running events popped up around the country, and social media was filled with posts from those pulling on their sneakers to send a message.
"I am going running today as a small sign of support for Boston and to show those responsible for the tragic events that we are stronger than they are," Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said in an email to athletes.
Tammi DeVan, in Alexandria, Va., did just that. "Jogged a couple miles for those who will never be able to again," she posted on Facebook.
For some Americans, the bombing was reason to slow down at least for a moment, and to hope it would bring Americans closer together.
"Usually at this time of day, I am looking for an excuse to get out of my house," Nancy Worth, a mother of four in Plano, Texas, posted on Facebook on Tuesday. "Today I feel happy to stay home, do mundane things like laundry, and snuggle Sammy," her 2-year-old.
"What's important right now is that it brings us closer together in times of tragedy," said Kathryn King, a Baltimore pediatrician who grew up not far from where the Virginia Tech shootings unfolded six years ago. The Boston bombings reminded her of how her neighbors in Virginia "taught the nation how it is to stand together and heal."
There may be a lesson for all Americans in the reaction of those injured in the Boston bombings.
Dr. Horacio Hojman, associate chief of trauma at Tufts Medical Center, which treated some of the injured, said that despite the seriousness of their injuries, patients were in surprisingly good spirits when they were brought in.
"Despite what they witnessed, despite what they suffered, despite many of them having life-threatening injuries, their spirits were not broken," he said. "And I think that should probably be the message for all of us that this horrible act of terror will not bring us down, and I think that the patients were the ones who say that the loudest."
David Lee, a truck driver from Lansing, Mich., gave voice to both that unbroken spirit and the worries that nag at Americans as they grapple with an unknown source of the terror.
"They want everyone to alter their lives again. And I said to myself, 'Well, I'm not going to get all wrapped up in this,'" Lee said.
But he also allowed: "When you're alone at night, in the dark, it worries you. It affects you. You think about the people that someone thought were expendable for them to get their point across."
Associated Press writers Stacy A. Anderson, Seth Borenstein, and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington, Donna Blankinship in Seattle; Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Los Angeles, Alex Dominguez in Baltimore, Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., Jay Lindsay in Boston, Alexandra Tisley in Denver and Alanna Durkin in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.
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