It was 17 years ago, July 27, 1996, when those of us who were a part of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games had our worst fears realized. A pipe bomb detonated in the Centennial Olympic Park during the middle weekend of that worldwide celebration, killing two people and injuring scores of others.
Just as with the authorities in Boston, we did not know at the time if our bombing was a coordinated attack or a random act of violence. It turned out to be the latter. Eric Rudolph — an American citizen, by the way — laid down a backpack filled with explosives in the park. Evidently, in his haste to get away he tilted the package back. That caused the screws and nails inside to arc when the bomb exploded instead of shooting straight out as happened in Boston and probably prevented even more deaths and injuries.
Leading up to the Games we had experienced the horrific bombing in Oklahoma City in April 1995, in which 169 people were killed, including 19 children. Less than three weeks before our Opening Ceremonies, a truck bomb exploded outside a military complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen and injuring hundreds of others. Terrorism was a major concern to us all and particularly to the Clinton Administration, which was hoping the 1996 Olympics would assure a group of happy and proud Americans in a re-election year.
Ironically, one of the people in the administration with whom I worked the closest was Deval Patrick, then assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice and now the governor of Massachusetts. A good man.
I remember a security briefing in which we were assured by confident law enforcement officials that if, by chance, there was a random act of terrorism the instigators would be tracked down and quickly apprehended. As I recall the conversation, those who would attempt such a deed were usually doing it for the first and only time and the government had rooms full of people who were experts at catching them.
We know today that Eric Rudolph eluded authorities for almost eight years before he was caught rummaging through a dumpster in the Murphy, N.C., area by a rookie cop. Thankfully, it looks as if our government has gotten better at walking its terrorism talk. I suspect the 9/11 attacks hastened that process along.
The most shameful part of the aftermath of the Olympic Park bombing was the conduct of the media. It was pack journalism at its shabbiest. The media hounded Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the bomb and alerted police. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell was later pounced on as the prime suspect. This was some of the worst reporting — if not the worst — I have ever witnessed. Jewell later sued and won libel judgments against a number of media outlets before he died.
The mainstream media may have learned some lessons from that painful episode in Atlanta. The reporting from Boston seemed a little more responsible and a little less frenzied. This time, however, it was the social media that showed little or no discipline in their rumors and innuendos about the investigation. Unlike real journalists, they hide behind anonymity. I am worried what impact these journalism wannabes will have on the coverage of events in the future but we had better get used to them. They aren’t going away.
Despite that traumatic night, the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games got back to business, thanks to athletes and spectators who refused to be intimidated by terrorism. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional Atlanta city government never got its act together before or after the bombing and was an embarrassment to the world and to those of us who worked so hard to stage the Games. The Games showed what a provincial city Atlanta was and still is.
Boston, on the other hand, is one of the great cities of the world; rich with history and full of character. If you know someone there, please tell them their friends down South hurt for them, but we got through it and they will, too.
I wish I could say this kind of thing won’t happen again, but I am not optimistic. As long as there are wackos inhabiting the planet, there will always be the threat of terrorism.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.0