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 the 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," Ms. Rinaldi 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 United States.
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, Mr. Schneier warns, in pursuit of safety and stronger law enforcement, as happened after 9-11. "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.
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," he 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.
David Lee, a truck driver from Lansing, Mich., gave voice to both an 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,' " he said.
But Mr. Lee 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."