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The hellish week that traumatized -- and bonded -- Americans

A woman carries a girl from their home as a SWAT team searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings enters the building in Watertown, Mass., Friday, That was part of what turned out to be a chaotic week in the U.S.
A woman carries a girl from their home as a SWAT team searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings enters the building in Watertown, Mass., Friday, That was part of what turned out to be a chaotic week in the U.S.Charles Krupa / AP

By Bill Briggs and JoNel Aleccia, NBC News

Americans found their resilience pushed to the limit  this week – and they still don’t know what’s coming next.

When the Boston Police Department tweeted "CAPTURED!!!" Friday night, signaling the apprehension of the second suspect in the bombing blasts that devastated that city's famous marathon, their elation was echoed by people across the nation who clapped, cheered, pinged, Facebooked and tweeted their own relief that, finally, there was an end to the manhunt -- and a hellish span of days.

Even though that siege has passed, the impact of collective crisis fatigue may well linger, experts say.

The U.S. already had endured Monday’s deadly attack, Tuesday’s poison letters and the Wednesday Texas fertilizer plant explosion that has left a still-untold number of people dead, 60 missing and 200 injured. Thursday and Friday saw a late-night shootout and a day-long lockdown that resulted in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and the capture of his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar. 

“All in all, this has been a tough week,” said President Barack Obama, addressing the nation Friday night. “But we’ve seen the character of our country once more.”

Through its long history, America has weathered its share of the disturbing and the traumatic -- political assassinations, civil and international wars, school massacres, Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks. But few in this generation can cite a single Monday-through-Friday series so jam-packed with frightful, breaking-news bulletins.

“For the first time in a long time, we’re really being challenged now on our home turf,"  said Marleen Wong, a professor and associate dean of the University of Southern California school of social work. She compared the condensed spate of sadness to the 1960s assassinations of President John Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, though she admits those murders spanned five years.

Sure, it's a lot to take. But when do we hit our bad-news breaking point? 

"If there’s another IED in another city, then we’re really going to have a problem. That’s what concerns me. We might then be crossing some kind of new line," said Bart Rossi, a New Jersey psychologist and author of "The New-New American Life Style: Post September 11, 2001, A Psychologist’s Perspective." "We're talking about some heavy issues here." 

Already, he expects that many Americans are purposely avoiding crowds and staying home, fearful that another mass-casualty is looming. He estimates that in about one month, those same people will resume their normal routines — if all remains relatively quiet.

"If you put a number on our national anxiety it's a 6 or 7 or maybe trending toward an 8," Rossi said. "We’re so frustrated and angry. If something else happens, it might go up to a 9 or a 10, where we’re all just really overwhelmed and overwrought."

That’s true even though the actual risk of harm is very small, even for those who were confined in the immediate area of Watertown, Mass., where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was believed to be trapped for most of Friday.

“The risk is statistically infinitesimal,” said David Ropeik, a Harvard University instructor, author and consultant in risk communication. “And greater emotionally.”

Terrorism is effective precisely because of the emotions it evokes and the stress that triggers a flight-or-fight response that suppresses reason and makes people more instinctive, Ropeik said.

“What terrorism is, is random, violent madness that makes us all feel vulnerable,” he said. “The unpredictable, unpreventable, could-happen-to-anyone-anywhere-anytime, they-are-living-among-us crimes always scare us.”

And it's not like Americans have been dancing lately through a landscape of easy years. The nation has weathered two wars — one still active — and the nasty aftermath of those conflicts, a bad economy, and an adversarial political environment: not traumatic for most yet exhausting and grinding for many. Since last summer, we've mourned dozens lost in the Aurora theater massacre, Superstorm Sandy and the Newtown school slaughter.

"These are times that really reinforce our values and the things we hold dear: the ability to live in peace," Wong said. 

"But on the other hand, I hear messages not just from leaders but also from people, from athletic teams, from runners — from people who have expressed the idea that you can try to hurt Americans, but we’re not afraid, we’re going to respond, we’re going to keep going, we’re going to prevail.

"It really demonstrates the courage of Americans in a way that reminds me of Britain during World War II when the bombs were falling every day in London and their leader, Winston Churchill, stood up and described what the English spirit is all about," Wong said. In similar fashion, some have demonstrated heroic and defiant actions this week — like the Boston hockey crowd belting out the National Anthem on Wednesday night.

"I saw that. It was so wonderful. It made me cry," Wong said. "We will be together, and we’ll get through it."

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