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The Subtle Changes Since 9/11
For Va. Neighbors, Lingering Fears and a New Worldview Underlie Everyday Life

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years later and 40 miles west of the Pentagon, beyond a guard and iron gates and as the sun falls into a warm evening on Chalfont Drive, Roya Lovell does not think about Sept. 11, or terrorism, not exactly.

She thinks about what she can make her three kids for dinner -- "Should we order a pizza?" her husband asks, arriving home with them from taekwondo class -- whether she feels like a walk, what she has to do to get ready for a business trip to California in a few days.

Across the wide street, a lazy sprinkler waters a lawn, and several neighbors stand outside watching their children play in the cul-de-sac, discussing vacations and the spate of hot weather.

In this particular corner of Piedmont, a gated golf-course community in western Prince William County, no one lost friends or relatives in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. No one ran down stairs, dived under desks or felt such imminent threats as a rolling cloud of choking dust.

If you ask how the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history has affected everyday life here, people tend to answer, not much at all. Most of the time, life hums along, perhaps with longer waits at the airport.

And yet it is also true that as the emotional urgency of Sept. 11 receded like a huge wave, it left behind an altered landscape here on Chalfont Drive, both mentally and materially.

For some, there are lingering fears, almost more annoying than frightening, that have become part of the ebb and flow of day-to-day thought. For others, fears have settled into questions about all that has come after Sept. 11 and what it means. Questions have settled into a sober desire to understand the world. And even among those most supportive of U.S. policy after Sept. 11, there is skepticism now -- what one woman calls a "more cynical" view of U.S. power and its limits.

Then there are the more personal, elemental changes that have become such a part of daily life as to escape notice.

Pulling into driveways on this evening, for instance, are several neighbors who moved to Piedmont, in Haymarket, precisely because of the attacks, because they wanted to be far from the bull's-eye that the Washington area seems to have become.

Among them are an Iranian, an Iraqi and two couples named Parsons, comfortably affluent professional couples with young kids living in a booming part of the region very much defined by optimism: a strong economy and brand-new streets, just-planted begonias and vaulted ceilings -- a place that depends on the hopeful and that promises a measure of escape.

Playing in the cul-de-sac is Amber, who is 4 now and who owes her existence to the emotionally intense fall of 2001, when Nicole Parsons and her future husband decided that life is short and had a child. Across the street are Tanya and Scott Charbo. They moved from Colorado when Scott got a high-level position at the Department of Homeland Security, an agency that did not exist before Sept. 11.

Next door is the mom who quit her job to be home with her children after the terrorist attacks and only last month returned to work. A few houses down is the minivan whose gas tank never drops below half-full, a practice begun after Sept. 11 that has become habit.

Feeling Less Safe

And here is Roya Lovell, coming home from a long day at work and opening her refrigerator, where there is a bright-orange bottle of expired amoxicillin behind the A1 sauce.

It is vestigial, she realizes, a useless thing that she can't quite bring herself to part with.

"I had this fear of a biological attack," Lovell said, explaining that she has kept the antibiotic for years in case it could protect her kids in another terrorist attack. "Who knows if this antibiotic still works, but I was kind of like, why not keep it?"

She poured herself a glass of iced tea.

Lovell, who works in financial services in Herndon, would put herself with the 63 percent who responded in a national poll this summer by Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times that Sept. 11 has not changed the way they live. After all, life carries on.

But now and then, Lovell sees the amoxicillin. And she thinks about things -- about the foiled terrorist plots, about her friend who works for Homeland Security and who told her how easily a biological attack could be pulled off, about how much more hatred there seems to be for the United States.

"There's so much intervention, with us in Iraq, and the fighting in Lebanon. . . . I don't know," she said. "There's more anger."

It adds up to her feeling less safe five years later, not more.

And so, Lovell said, she thinks about how to prepare her children for the next terrorist attack, which she considers inevitable. "I think of how to prepare myself, how to prepare my family," she said. "I always think about where my brother lives, 15 minutes away from D.C. I always tell him, 'You need to move out of the area.' But I never tell him why."

Sometimes, wheeling down the bottled-water aisle in the grocery store, she thinks about stockpiling -- "I think, liquid, liquid, liquid," Lovell said. She will not fly in a plane with her children, because she imagines a scene in which they look at her and she has to tell them there's nothing she can do.

For the most part, though, these sorts of darker thoughts are confined to her morning commute, when she's alone for a solid hour, heading closer to the District, one of the most obvious terrorist targets in the world.

It is difficult not to think about it then, about the United Airlines flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field instead of the U.S. Capitol or the White House. It is difficult to brush aside the idea that if plans were thwarted, they also remain unfinished.

And so Lovell will zip along the Herndon Parkway and near Dulles International Airport, where five of the Sept. 11 hijackers boarded the American Airlines flight that hit the Pentagon. She'll see a plane and wonder, What would I do if it slammed into the cars?

She'll pass a big field of weather satellite dishes to the right and think, "No, the plane wouldn't land there because there are no humans," she said. Then she'll look to the field on the left where houses are going up and consider how much easier her commute would be if she moved there, until she thinks, "No . . . those guys got on those planes right down the street. Right at Dulles."

"It enters my head," Lovell said. "And I stop myself, because I could go on."

She sipped her tea and pulled her daughter into her lap while her husband, John, tapped an order for pizza into the computer.

"Definitely, over time I've thought about it less and less," John Lovell said, referring to Sept. 11.

For him, all the nervousness and anxiety faded away at some point that he cannot identify. What's left is something perhaps more permanent, more intellectual than emotional.

For one, he does not want to work in the District again. He has accepted the possibility of a terrorist attack as a cold, hard fact. And in the past five years, he has found himself more interested in learning about the rest of the world.

Immediately after Sept. 11, he recalled, he was shocked to hear that there were people who felt the United States somehow had brought the attacks upon itself. "I remember getting angry and thinking, How could they possibly think that?" he said. "But then that enabled me to start digging deeper."

So he began paying more attention to the news, talking more to his wife's family, which is Iranian, and now finds himself to be "the voice of reason" as he debates Middle East policy with friends.

"I just don't assume that a perspective from the Middle East is the wrong perspective," said Lovell, who was raised in a conservative family in a small Virginia town and works for Fannie Mae in Bethesda. "I try to take a look and understand it."

"He's a lot more calm than me," said his wife, who decided she would take a walk after all.

She headed across the street to meet her friend Nicole, who was outside talking with a few neighbors.

Seeing the World Differently

Among them were people who had heard fighter jets overhead Sept. 11, who had gotten stuck in the exodus from the District. Mindy Parsons was not one of them, however. She was far away that day, living in Michigan, and watched the whole thing on TV in a hospital, where her daughter was having surgery.

She and her husband, an engineer for Exxon Mobil, flew their U.S. flag in the days after, but the whole awful thing felt distant even as it was happening, she said, and it feels more distant now. When her husband was transferred to the corporate offices in Fairfax, she had no second thoughts about moving to the Washington area.

"I think the chances of another attack are slim," said Parsons, who is originally from Indiana. "It's more the mechanical failure I fear when I'm flying."

She says all the things that people tend to say about Sept. 11: that it will "go down in history," that it was a "wake-up call."

Yet when she really thinks about it, Parsons said, Sept. 11 probably did not change things much at all. People have always hated the United States, she figures, so that's nothing new. And there has always been some type of conflict in the world.

Five years later, she decided, what has really changed is us.

"In recent years, it seems like the U.S. has said, 'Our way or the highway,' and that's not necessarily a good thing," she said. "A lot of people hate our country. Understandably."

It is the sort of statement that was unthinkable for many people in the hyper-patriotic days just after Sept. 11 but that has become a common, if uncomfortable, realization.

Carol Himes, who lives a few doors down, said the past five years have led her and her husband to reconsider their notions of U.S. influence in the world. Although they believed strongly in President Bush's idea of promoting democracy abroad as a deterrent to terrorism, the couple, who consider themselves moderate Republicans, have adopted what Carol calls a "more cynical" view.

"I just feel like at some point, maybe someone would just reflect on the fact that these people don't want our help," she said, referring to Iraq specifically and the Middle East more generally. "Maybe they look at life differently. And maybe what we're hoping to do is just not feasible. This just might be one thing the U.S. can't accomplish."

On a more personal level, though, Himes finds herself better off five years later, if only because Sept. 11 forced her and her husband to reassess their priorities. In the aftermath, they decided to move to Piedmont to be farther from the District, and Carol decided to quit her job managing a health club to be home with their two children until they were both school age, which happened this year.

"It was kind of a reality check for us, especially being a generation of working people and career-oriented people into making money," she said. "We realized that is not as important to us as we had initially thought."

She has had conversations on the subject with Roya Lovell and another neighbor, Faddia Gobi, who is Iraqi American. They both have made distant conflicts seem more real: Lovell's mother and sister were visiting Lebanon when the recent fighting with Israel started; Gobi has cousins in Baghdad.

Gobi is the one who keeps her minivan's tank filled up, just in case; the one who has television news on all day, just in case; and who, like Himes, moved to Piedmont to escape the underlying fear she felt living closer to the District, which, even here, she can't quite shake.

She sat in her living room recently on a sunny afternoon, looking out the window at the rolling green lawn.

"Look at how peaceful it is, how beautiful it is," she said. "But you never know when a bomb is going to fall."

A few weeks ago, she was visiting her family in Staunton, where her sister lives on 100 acres. They were out on the deck, having dinner and a pleasant conversation in the early evening.

"And we were like, 'Okay, if something happens, this is where we're meeting,' " she said. "We were joking, but it's not a joke. . . . It's in the back of your mind constantly."

Gobi's neighbor Nicole Parsons explained the effects of Sept. 11 this way: "I almost think it's an underlying, unspoken bond. My mom never talked about [World War II], but she lived it."

She forgets sometimes, but the trajectory of her life changed Sept. 11, when she and her boyfriend got more serious and decided to have a baby.

She left her job at the Washington Speakers Bureau, and they got married and moved from Alexandria out to Piedmont, where Parsons hoped they could escape a little bit from all those worries.

"It's almost like we're in our own safe little world . . . like when you go on vacation," she said.

Still, the worries have managed to seep in.

"It was 9/11, then it was Iraq, then all this fighting and the war in Lebanon and North Korea. And the more you hear, the less safe you feel. It's almost like 9/11 is what got the faucet going," Parsons said. "Now it's Hez-bo-llah -- I don't even know how to pronounce these things."

She'd never paid that much attention to world affairs before, but she's trying to now, she said. And if she doesn't fully understand how all the pieces fit or don't fit together, she knows one thing: Five years after Sept. 11, she is exhausted by it all. She is craving some relief.

It was dark on Chalfont Drive, and Parsons and Lovell set off for their nightly power walk in the neighborhood.

They bounded along the sidewalk under the stars and laughed, kind of, about Lovell's amoxicillin in the refrigerator. They strolled past spotlighted houses and white picket fences and said words such as "terrorism" and "bombing" into the quiet evening. They walked along stretches of golf green and talked about how they felt less safe than ever.

They passed a man taking out his garbage and joked about how they take note when Scott Charbo, the Department of Homeland Security official on their cul-de-sac, comes home especially late.

And after a couple of miles, they headed back home, breathing heavily.

"I'm very patriotic, and after 9/11, I was majorly patriotic," Nicole Parsons said, wiping sweat from her face. "But it's getting to the point now where everything is getting so out of control. . . . I do get to the point when I think: When is it enough? When can we stop?

"I feel like we're involved with everything that's going on in the world. I support my country, but at some point we have to stop. I just want it to stop."

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