Twenty years ago this summer, America was rocked by a terrorist attack. A religious fanatic radicalized by fundamentalist ideas planted a bomb at a crowded location during a major sporting event. The device he built killed one person and injured 120 more. The death toll could easily have been in the hundreds.
That same terrorist planted three more bombs that injured and killed over the next two years; bombs targeting places he arrogantly linked to the causes he felt were worth murdering innocents for. The last one provided a clue to his identity and he was placed on the FBI Most Wanted list.
People who supported his political leanings and members of his faith never denounced his actions and evidence suggests he was hidden, fed, and well taken care of during the five year period from his identification to his eventual capture. His name was Eric Rudolph.
The Atlanta Olympic Park Bombing hit close to home. I retired early the night the dynamite propelled nails and other metal shards through the immediate area. I had a date in Atlanta and the alarm was set for 2:30am.
My brother was coming from the other direction and we were meeting to attend the 1996 Olympics. Seeing the Games had been high on our sports bucket list for some time and we both knew this might be our only chance.
When I awakened and turned on the television for weather and results, I heard the news. I sat stunned until word was given the Games would continue; then I got ready and headed west. I knew Rick would meet me there.
At least once along my trip from Columbia, I broke into tears. I wasn’t scared or sad; I was pissed off. My biggest fear was having some fanatical zealot intrude in my life, and the life of the people I knew and respected. I felt, as many other Americans did, that we were better than that. Those people weren’t going to change how we live. They were not going to scare us.
Security was much tighter than anything I’d seen before and there were a lot of nervous people walking around. Anyone with a backpack, carrying a bundle, or holding a crumpled bag was suspect. A rumor temporarily shut down the MARTA train we were taking to the brand new baseball field. No bomb was found. I don’t remember seeing any Muslims or thinking foreign subversives were necessarily responsible.
We were two years removed from Oklahoma City and the Unabomber had been arrested that same spring. America was still five years from 9-11 and didn’t equate terrorism with one single foreign religion. We still believed that anyone could become a terrorist, not just one of Them.
There were no further incidents at the Atlanta Olympics and everyone seemed to enjoy the spectacle. My brother and I watched several events and reveled in the spirit of the Olympic Games.
Twenty years down the road the Olympics have changed but not drastically. There is much more inclusion. American women athletes have won more medals so far than their superior male counterparts. There is even a mixed-sex athlete running track.
The bureaucracy is more layered; the corruption and greed more obvious than before. At least they used to hide that aspect of the Games. There’s more of the stink the non-athletes always bring with them.
Terrorism has changed a lot, I’m afraid. Like so many other things, it has become politicized. Although fewer people die from terrorism than from cow accidents, terrorist attacks draw a lot of attention in our country. Politicians are running for office by scaring the bejeesus out of uninformed possible voters and we’ve almost succeeded in ostracizing an entire religion of peaceful people out of fear.
The one thing I was confident of that morning as I drove east on I-20 was that America wouldn’t succumb to fear, wouldn’t let a bunch of ignorant bullies alter how we lived and how we believed.
Boy, was I wrong.