Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Centennial Olympic Park Bombing - Twenty Years Later

It was twenty years ago today that, during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a terrorist attacked Centennial Olympic Park, a public plaza built in Atlanta's downtown area for the Games, with a cluster of pipe bombs in a backpack, which went off during a late-night/early morning rock concert. The blast killed one woman - Alice Hawthorne of Albany, Georgia - caused the fatal heart attack of a Turkish TV cameraman, Melih Uzunyol, who was running to the scene, and injured 111 others.
My own personal recollections of the attack are still vivid. The bomb went off at 1:25 A.M. on Saturday, July 27, 1996. I had just turned off the television set a few minutes earlier to go to bed, having watched a late-night interview with American Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken. At 8:30 A.M., I got up and turned the TV on to NBC, which was broadcasting the Olympics. Before the picture came on, the sound did, and I heard Tom Brokaw's voice. I immediately knew something was wrong; Brokaw wouldn't have been on at that hour on a Saturday otherwise. Sure enough, there had been a terrorist attack, and comparisons to 1972 in Munich ran rampant. Coming as it did three years after the first World Trade Center attack and a year after Oklahoma City (both by truck bombs), the Olympic Park bombing made me wonder how things could get even worse in America.
And then came 9/11 . . . :-(
The bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (the blast site is seen during the investigation immediately following the bombing in the photo above) was a tragic moment in the history of the Olympic movement, in part because it disrupted the spirit of goodwill of the Games and derailed the American South's attempt to bury its racist past - the bomber, as it later turned out, was a right-wing anti-black, anti-Semitic nut - just as the Munich hostage crisis at the 1972 Olympics that resulted in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes at the hands of Palestinian commandos derailed Germany's efforts to escape the shadow of Naziism.
Perhaps one of the greatest victims of the Atlanta bombing was Richard Jewell, the security officer who found the backpack bomb and cleared people out before it exploded. Jewell, who had been employed by AT&T to guard its pavilion at Centennial Olympic Park, was first hailed as a hero for saving people from injury and death, then accused by the media of planting the bomb himself, even though the evidence against him was nonexistent.  The FBI declared Jewell a "person of interest" largely due to his previous employment as a security officer at Piedmont College in Georgia, where he was said to have been "overzealous" in enforcing campus rules and regulations and faulted by the college's president for writing "epic police reports for minor infractions."  The supposition was that Jewell planted the bomb and pretended to find it so he could play the role of a hero after having been a failed security officer and a frustrated wannabe policeman.  Also, he seemed too eager to grant interviews explaining how he found the bomb and how he helped get as many people to safety.
There was just one problem with that "theory." The bomber made a 911 phone call announcing to authorities (with some sick pride, no doubt) that he had planted the bomb at a public telephone several blocks away, about ten minutes before it went off, and Jewell found the bomb in the park only moments after that call was made. There was no way that Jewell could have made the call from the public telephone it was traced to and gotten back to the park in time to rescue people; it was just too far a distance. The media initially ignored that, as did the FBI, which went ahead and investigated Jewell and cleared him in October 1996 - nearly three months after everyone else figured out that he couldn't have done it.
As for all those interviews he'd granted to the press? He did so at AT&T's urging, as the company was happy to promote him as a fine example of the people it hired for its role a corporate sponsor at the Games. 
What the media did to Richard Jewell (above) made me sick to my stomach.  They convicted him of terrorism without a fair trial, in the court of public opinion, and the FBI made things worse with their slipshod investigation. He later worked as a sheriff's deputy in a rural Southern county, and even though he'd been cleared, many people would still think of Jewell more as a suspect than as the hero he was.  He was unfairly slandered and ridiculed while under investigation for something he didn't do - Jay Leno called him the "Una-Bubba," a play on the Unabomber, Ted Kascynski - instead of being commended for his bravery and his service in the line of duty.  Jewell eventually sued Piedmont College for the statements it made about him, as well suing as NBC, the Atlanta-based CNN, the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for how they reported his role in the story.  Aside from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jewell settled with all of the parties he sued, but the money he won went to paying his lawyers.  Jewell didn't care; he was pleased just to win the cases and clear his name.  
After Jewell was cleared, the FBI had no other persons of interest to investigate; having hounded Jewell almost to death, the agency let the real bomber get away.  Then in early 1997, an abortion clinic and a lesbian nightclub, both in the Atlanta area, were bombed; these attacks were followed by another abortion clinic bombing in Birmingham, Alabama where a policeman working as a security officer was killed and a nurse was injured.  A recovered license plate led the FBI to suspect one Eric Rudolph.
Rudolph was a rabid right-winger who opposed abortion and also believed that the Olympics symbolized "global socialism," a threat to liberty (as he saw it) being protected by the U.S. government.  He planted the bomb to embarrass the government for protecting the Olympics and for allowing legal abortion.  Only in October 1998 did the FBI declare Rudolph a suspect in all four bombings, five months after he had a million-dollar bounty placed on his head and two years after Jewell was cleared.
And the FBI never did catch Eric Rudolph. As I noted here back in 2003, when Rudolph was apprehended, he was arrested by a rookie policeman in a small town in western North Carolina on suspicions of attempting a burglary at a local store.  He'd eluded the authorities for nearly seven years.  But then the FBI never caught Ted Kaczynski, either (his brother turned him in).
Though Jewell was a victim of wrongful accusation, he was not the only or even the worst affected individual in the bombing's aftermath. Also affected was the family of Alice Hawthorne; because the Olympic park bomb didn't do nearly as much damage as Timothy McVeigh had done in Oklahoma City, it was considered a "negligible act of violence."  A negligible act of violence?  Was the FBI kidding us? Alice Hawthorne's widower and children begged to differ. Melih Uzunyol's family, I'm sure, would also beg to differ.  So would Olympic swimmer Janet Evans, who saw the blast right before her eyes from a pavilion overlooking the park during a television interview she was granting. Evans later declared the loss of life at Atlanta to be tremendous. Two people dying might not sound like much, but two people dying in any terrorist attack are two people too many. Which was exactly Evans's point.
Richard Jewell, who died in 2007, lived long enough to see Rudolph, who in 2005 pleaded guilty to the Centennial Olympic bombing and the other bombings, brought to justice and imprisoned for life, but the harassment he received at the hands of a law enforcement establishment he wished to be a part of and the hell he was put through still make me mad every time I think of it . . . and it all reminds me of how working stiffs like Jewell are unfairly treated by the system.  Despite Rudolph's capture and prosecution, some people might remember Jewell as a comical, stumbling figure in the Olympic Park bombing.  But I will say this.  Every person who ever doubted Jewell's actions that early morning, dismissed him as a self-aggrandizing sort, or ever suspected him or wrongfully accused him of planting that bomb is guilty of slandering the memory of a decent man, a dedicated law enforcement worker, and a true hero.

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