Paranoia and fear can ride hard on the ill winds of evil. And yet, with the passing of each tragic event, Americans say they are more angry than afraid, vowing to defy the randomness of violence.
Just as the country was beginning to process the bombings at the Boston Marathon came reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that letters laced with the poison ricin had been sent to President Barack Obama and a senator, as congressional offices were temporarily evacuated because of suspicious packages.
Beyond Washington, police were searching an abandoned U-Haul van near city hall in Oklahoma City, the federal courthouse was emptied because of a bomb threat in Boston and officials in Atlanta were investigating a report of a suspicious package north of downtown.
Those incidents yesterday were the latest illustration of life in a post-Sept. 11, 2001 age, when facts compete with rumors, fanned by cable news and social media, peeling away another layer of a sense of personal security.
“Everybody is very edgy -- hyper-vigilant,” said Stacey Hader Epstein, 52, a freelance public relations consultant in Atlanta. “It reminds me of what happened after 9/11. It’s good and bad - good in that it brings everybody’s focus back to looking after one another. The negative is it makes everybody paranoid and suspicious.”
Hader Epstein was passing out free cookies to people nearby in what she called “random acts of kindness” -- a practice she started after the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, of 20 children and six adults in December.
A shooting at a school steals innocence. Appeals are made for impenetrable doors and teachers with guns. A terror attack changes a way of life. Most can’t recall taking a flight without removing their shoes, or not casting a more critical eye on a passenger who fits a certain profile.
A sporting event like the Super Bowl now comes with a trip through a magnetometer. After the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon, other events will no doubt require more security, and what seemed like a nuisance the day before will be met with grudging acceptance.
Several Americans interviewed in seven states said that while the Boston bombings rattled their sense of well-being, they remain unbowed in terms of how their lives would be altered in the longer run.
Mary Ann Coomer, 51, of Overland Park, Kansas was in Boston to watch her daughter, Katie, 24, compete in the marathon. She said her daughter has come of age in a time when such attacks, while not expected, weren’t entirely surprising. “In the world she lives in, this is getting normal,” Coomer said. “You have to live life to its fullest.”
John St. Germain, 54, of Philadelphia, said the Massachusetts tragedy “made us feel a little more vulnerable.” In an interview at the 30th Street Station, a train terminal, he added, “When you see something like that, you realize anything can happen.”
Now, he said he would think twice about attending large events in the area like a marathon. “I’ll take more time to weigh our options,” said St. Germain.
Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, elected leaders and public safety officers have urged vigilance, complete with the “see something, say something” mantra.
“This definitely brings back memories of 9/11 and all of the craziness we saw after that,” said Ivan Chavez, 38, a network engineer who lives in Torrance, California. “When you think about all of the public places you go, you realize how easy of a target we really are.”
The coverage of the bombings and the poisoned letters adds to the uncertainty as much as it provides answers in the hours before investigators have answers. The boundaries of “it can’t possibly happen here” shrink with each episode.
So there will be more fences, more searches, less freedom of movement and more anxiety, particularly when taking children into a crowded place like a mall, a subway or another sporting event with tens of thousands in attendance, at least in the near term.
In a Fox News poll released yesterday with respondents being asked which best describes how they feel about the bombings, 58 percent of voters said angry they happened compared with 27 percent who said they are worried about more attacks. Voters were split evenly on whether they’d give up freedoms to be safer, and 81 percent said they won’t change their lifestyle because of them.
Los Angeles Marathon
Kent Kornmeyer, 55, a singer and waiter who attended Boston College and lives in Beverly Hills, California, said he felt the trauma of the bombings in a personal sense and yet won’t alter his life as a result.
He’s even considering training for the Los Angeles Marathon. “The only thing that’s going to keep me from running that would be my legs or my lungs,” he said.
Kornmeyer recalled listening to a radio announcer call out the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower in New York while driving to work.
“My attitude, then and now, is if you want me, come get me,” he said of would-be terrorists. “You’re not going to change the way I live my life.”
Joe Mlot, 18, a freshman at Michigan State University in East Lansing, was in second grade when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, so the talk of terrorism has been a part of his growing up.
“To the public, it could possibly come here or anywhere,” said Mlot, who’s from the Detroit suburb of Rochester. “If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen, I can’t do anything to stop it. The worry is becoming part of everyday life, though it’s not happening every day. You’ve got to be extra careful, take life one day at a time and tell your loved ones you love them.”
For others, the incidents prompted pause and reflection, followed by resolve. Tom DeMeester, a surgeon from Los Angeles, said he considered canceling trips to Europe and to the Super Bowl next year, then decided not to change his plans.
“Life’s got to go on,” DeMeester said in an interview at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, where he was catching a connecting flight to a medical conference in Baltimore. “I remember when you never had to think about these things. It’s a dramatic change.”
And yet, it was an evolving change that prompted as much resolve as alarm. Bob Daly, 52, a chemist from Indiana who frequently travels internationally, said he didn’t fear more attacks.
“It’s shocking, but you can’t let it dictate your life,” said Daly. “You can’t let the terrorists win.”