Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Bombing in Olympic Park

If it had happened a few years later, someone might have noticed something in time to make a difference. Lives might have been saved. Dozens of injuries might have been prevented.

But no one noticed. Well, one person apparently noticed — but I'll get back to that shortly.

Sometime in the earliest minutes of July 27, 1996, a 29–year–old man named Eric Rudolph placed a knapsack containing three pipe bombs beneath a bench in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, which was designed to serve as a kind of town square, a friendly gathering place, for the Summer Games.

Fifteen years ago tonight, several hundred people were in Centennial Olympic Park for a late–night concert. The atmosphere, as far as I can tell, was light and jovial — as it should have been. The '96 Games were already being hailed as a rousing success. American gymnast Kerri Strug had demonstrated the true spirit of Olympic competition only a few days earlier with her gutsy vault in the team all–around.

Then the bomb went off around 1:20 a.m. It killed a Georgia woman. A cameraman from Turkey suffered a fatal heart attack while running to cover the event. Hundreds were injured.

Meanwhile, Rudolph had disappeared into the Georgia night.

Rudolph spent many years on the FBI's notorious Most Wanted list, in part for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing but also for bombings he carried out at abortion clinics and a gay bar in the years after Olympic Park.

He was a fugitive from justice for several years — until he was finally taken into custody in 2003 and, per the conditions of a plea agreement, sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison.

But it was more than two years after the Olympic Park bombing before the Department of Justice connected Rudolph, by that time a suspect in the other incidents, to that crime.

Initially, the focus of Olympic officials was on heightening security, and precautions were taken that were regarded by some as intrusive at the time — but would hardly raise an eyebrow today. Metal detectors were put in place at every entrance, and bags were searched. At a time when airport scans have been criticized for being too revealing, it all seems tame in hindsight.

But it wasn't enough. Investigators were eager to blame someone — anyone — and put to rest public fears. They settled on a scapegoat — with the help of the media.

The scapegoat was a fellow named Richard Jewell, a security guard. He discovered Rudolph's bomb before it went off, alerted authorities and helped evacuate the area. Because of his actions, many people undoubtedly avoided injury or death, and he was hailed as a hero.

But that quickly changed to what has been called a "trial by media." The Atlanta Journal–Constitution reported that the FBI was treating Jewell as a suspect. That was based primarily on the FBI's "lone bomber" profile of the probable culprit.

Whether that was largely correct or not is open to interpretation, but this much is certain — it focused the glare of the media spotlight on the wrong man.

It was suggested that Jewell was a failed law enforcement officer who planned the bombing precisely so he could find the bomb and be proclaimed a hero. He would be in demand as a security provider, the kind of on–the–ball guy that any company would like to have on its security detail.

He was never formally accused of anything, but his home was searched, his friends and co–workers were interrogated, and lawsuits were filed against him by victims of the Olympic Park bombing.

Personally, I was quite surprised by all that. I would have thought that people had learned their lesson about jumping to conclusions in the spring of 1995, when authorities initially suspected a Muslim man of blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City — only to discover that the evidence pointed to a more likely suspect, a homegrown Christian boy named Timothy McVeigh.

But some people have never needed much encouragement to jump to conclusions. Sometimes all it takes is a clever summation from a crafty prosecutor. At other times, even less credible means have been sufficient to persuade the gullible.

Ironically, the only way Jewell was able to ease the pressure was to take — and pass with flying colors — a polygraph, which would not be admissible in a court of law because of its unreliability.

Nevertheless, the public bought it.

After he had been cleared, Jewell filed a series of lawsuits against those who had perpetuated the negative stories about him — especially NBC and the Journal–Constitution.

Among other things, he demanded apologies. That was for him. There was little, if any, financial gain; most of the money would be used to pay attorneys and the IRS. Jewell simply wanted his good name restored.

It was a costly lesson for the media outlets. NBC agreed to pay Jewell $500,000. CNN settled for an undisclosed amount.

The Journal–Constitution wound up not paying Jewell anything. The case against the paper lingered in the courts over the issue of whether newspapers can be compelled to reveal their sources. Ultimately, the case was dismissed in December 2007, four months after Jewell died at the age of 44.

Well, as I say, anti–terrorism security was still rather primitive in the mid–1990s. In spite of a lot of talk, I suspect that most Americans still believed what they had believed half a century earlier — before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — that the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans protected them from anyone who might wish to do them harm.

The Oklahoma City bombing clearly received a lot of attention. So, too, did the first (but not nearly as dramatic) attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

But, for whatever reason, Americans continued to believe that such events were isolated, that they didn't indicate an ongoing, even escalating, effort by extremists to harm Americans and disrupt American life.

And it would be more than five years — until September 11 — before Americans began to get serious about national security in a non–military sense.

If they had been as serious about security on this night 15 years ago as they became after September 11, a lot of things that happened might not have happened — the terrorist attacks in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, not to mention the September 11 hijackings themselves.

And the bombing in Olympic Park.

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