Remembering the lessons of 7/27

World-class athletes from all over the globe had gathered in a great American city for a storied competition steeped in tradition, harmony and international good will. And then a madman set off a bomb, killing two people and injuring more than a hundred others.

Eric Rudolph

That was in 1996.

It’s worth remembering the Centennial Olympic Park bombing this week, as the parallels between that attack and the horror Monday in Boston may help to provide some perspective as we once again experience the shock, sadness and anger in response to such senseless violence.

I couldn’t help but remember the 1996 attack yesterday as I listened to numerous reports confirming that organizers would, indeed, continue to hold the Boston Marathon, or that participants would, indeed, return to race again in future years. I don’t recall hearing any other possibility even considered in the aftermath of the 1996 attack. Maybe I’ve just forgotten and reporters back then were seriously considering the possibility that the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney would be cancelled in surrender to this cowardly act, but I don’t remember anyone then actually entertaining such capitulation as an option worth talking about.

Along those lines, these are some wise words from security expert Bruce Schneier:

Terrorism is a crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is theater to make you scared. That’s the point.

… To the extent this terrorist attack succeeds has very little do with the attack itself. It’s all about our reaction. We must refuse to be terrorized. Imagine if the bombs were found and moved at the last second, and no one died, but everyone was just as scared. The terrorists would have succeeded anyway. If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose, no matter how much carnage they commit.

If Schneier is right — and I believe he is — then maybe in a way it’s a good thing that so many commentators and reporters this week have described the Boston attack as “unprecedented,” as though the Centennial Park bombing never happened. In a sense, that shows that we were not permanently scarred or changed by the Atlanta attack. And thus that we do not need to be permanently scarred and changed by this more recent attack. We can, as Schneier says, choose not to surrender to the violence of the violent.

But then maybe we’re not so much resilient as we are shallow and narcissistic. Maybe each successive incident wipes away all memory of previous ones because we’re so enthralled with the momentary sense of vicarious significance each new one provides — each one another opportunity to excite ourselves with the notion that we are living in “the most critical time in the history of the world.”

One lesson from the 1996 attack that we don’t seem to have learned is not to jump to conclusions before we’re certain of who was responsible. Security guard Richard Jewell — who discovered the bomb and saved lived by helping to move the crowd away — was falsely implicated in the Atlanta bombing, but few seem to take that as a lesson to avoid speculation, guesswork and rushing to judgment before the facts are known.

The mistaken focus on Jewell allowed the actual bomber — Eric Rudolph — to escape into the wind, eluding capture until 2003.

And remembering Rudolph points out another important lesson from the 1996 attack: We must always beware the temptation to demonize others and to puff ourselves up. That might feel good, but some others may not be able to understand that it’s all just a game. Denouncing the “murderous” baby-killing Holocaust and fantasizing that we, the noble champions opposing it, are the moral heirs of the great abolitionists is all just puffery and pretense American Christians use to make believe we’re distinguishable from our neighbors. But the danger of talk like that is that someone like Eric Rudolph might come along and take it seriously.

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  • I don’t think madman is really right. It may be that I’ve overlooked it, or that Wikipedia just left it out, but I’m not seeing anything indicating he had mental health problems of any kind.

    His actions, instead, seem rather sane. Despicable and evil, but sane.

    He took the bullshit seriously. He considered the possible responses. He couldn’t take on the US Government directly. But what he could do is attempt to discredit it (by demonstrating it couldn’t even protect a high profile event) and take the fight directly to the enemy by bombing two abortion clinics and a lesbian bar.

    He believed the propaganda, which means that as far as he was concerned what he was doing was the same as if he had bombed two gas chambers, an SS Bar, and tried to embarrass the Nazis by showing that they could offer no protection within their own boarders thus giving everyone under the Nazis less reason to obey.

    Completely evil, but fairly sane. His problem isn’t that he took the rhetoric to an insane conclusion, his problem is that he took it to its rational conclusion, combined that with a belief that the ends justify the means, and then responded to that combination in a sane way.

    The reason there are not more sane people doing what he’s doing is that most people respond to the claims in ways that are completely irrational if you believe them. They do this because they don’t believe the claims. They just make them. Over and over again.

    Evil and insanity are at right angles to each other. Madmen are no more likely to be evil than sanemen.

  • I think you are right on the shallow and narcisstic. One of the first comments I saw after the bombs was someone touting the “6” terror attacks since Obama’s been in office, and comparing it to the “0” Bush had.

    For all their posturing about 9/11, they were sure willing to wipe it from the history books to score a political point.

  • Jeff

    Wow. A gratuitous dig at pro-lifers in an article linking two bombings that have no connection to abortion politics whatsoever? Super-classy, man. Meanwhile, silence from you on the news item that actually does have abortion relevance (the Gosnell trial).

  • Jeff

    Err…I stand corrected, Rudolph was indeed motivated by the government’s abortion policies, so I was incorrect to say that the 1996 bombing had no connection to abortion politics. But this week’s bombing, it’s not known either way, so using it as a pretext to take a shot at pro-lifers is still gratuitous, as is linking pro-life rhetoric, (even strong pro-life rhetoric) with reprehensible behavior like Rudolph’s, which no one condones.

  • Slow Learner

    We know nothing about the perpetrator of this latest attack, but the Olympic Park bombing was BY A PRO-LIFE EXTREMIST, explicitly to express his rage at abortion.
    To quote his own statement on why he did it:
    “the purpose of the attack on July 27th was to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand”
    (source here:, via wiki)

  • DCFem

    Let’s remember that it was a rookie with about one month on the force who caught Rudolph.We always get these guys but I wish we would spend more time on preventing the next attack. And not with security theater. We need to work harder on knowing our neighbors. The Adam Lanza’s of the world need more community support than they receive. We need to notice the troubled people and intervene before they set bombs or pick up assault weapons.

    And threadjackers will decry your linking anti-abortion terrorists into a post about Boston, but anti-abortion terrorists have done quite a bit of bombing and shooting of unarmed people over the past 20 years. So calling them terrorists is just speaking a plain truth.The Boston bombing probably has nothing to do with abortion. But it isn’t like a precedent hasn’t been set to make Fred (and others) speculate.

  • sh

    Rudolf himself is the link to abortion politics. Besides the Atlanta bombing, which was similar to the Boston one, he later bombed a Birmingham women’s clinic that provided abortions. That’s the natural link.

  • John (not McCain)

    Wow! A gratuitous, knee jerk response from an ignorant conservative goon who is bereft of facts. Who would have thunk it?

  • Slow Learner

    Well done for self-correcting before anyone could even jump on you! Don’t see that nearly often enough on the Internet…

    I still think it’s completely appropriate to compare Boston to the Olympic Park attack. It’s an attack on a similar scale, on a similar kind of event; and just as most attacks in the UK in recent memory have been related to Northern Ireland, most domestic terror attacks in the US have been by white male right-wing extremists. To my mind that gives a list of three issues most likely to be the perpetrator’s motivation – Abortion, same-sex marriage, or gun rights. My confidence in that assessment isn’t huge, but it’s the most likely individual hypothesis.

  • Carstonio

    “If you refuse to be scared”? One can’t prevent one’s self from feeling emotions, or choose whether or not to feel them. These are involuntary reactions to events. Even veteran performers and public speakers can feel nervous before facing an audience. I would restate Schneier’s point to say that the choice is ours on how to act on our fears. As Fred described it, we can choose not to surrender to our fears.

  • Fusina

    I was pointed to the Gosnell trial by a family member, and I would like to point out to you what I pointed out to them. Gosnell is an _alleged_ murderer who happens to be a doctor who provided abortions. The one does not cause the other. And yes, I know you are probably going to trot out that abortions are murder blah blah blah, but not all doctors who provide abortions are murderers–unless you want to also call all women who have sex murderers, considering that a large number of fertilized eggs spontaneously abort. And, while we are at it, do you remember a little thing called “Innocent until proven guilty? Considering the number of people lately who have been proven innocent after being convicted of a crime, maybe we should halt the rush to judgement?

  • Fusina

    “The Adam Lanza’s of the world need more community support than they receive.”

    Um, Amen Preach it sister? I would like to see this. I would like to see mental illness treated as the disease it is, rather than as a mental failing. I don’t choose to be depressed, I just am. I can show a smile to the world, but it doesn’t mean I’m not crying inside.

  • Wednesday

    Good on you for correcting yourself! :)

    Still, you do realize that discussing the Gosnell trial in depth and with an eye to the factors that allowed him to perpetuate his butchery for so long does not exactly leave the pro-life movement smelling like roses, either, right? Gosnell’s kind of Exhibit A in “horrors that happen when legal abortion access is curtailed and a complete asshole realizes how much he can profit from the desperation of poor women when they dare not report him.”

  • Baby_Raptor

    Are you out there yelling at people who blame it on pro-choicers, gays and non-believers the same way you are us? If not, then Fuck right off. You’re just hypocritically whining because you’re butthurt.

  • cyllan

    I was in Atlanta during the Olympics. The night after the bombing, despite having decided previously that I would avoid downtown as much as possible during the festivities, I and a friend hopped onto the train and went down to Centennial Olympic park. It was important to both of us that we go and show up as a way of saying that we would not be intimidated. If memory serves, the park was packed that evening, and most people seemed to be in much the same mood. It helped, I think.

  • Carstonio

    Seems to me that the core motivation for the US terrorists is misplaced entitlement.

  • Jessica_R

    A unicorn chaser after a gloomy couple of days, marriage equality passed in New Zealand and the gallery burst into a traditional love song, just beautiful, …

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Another lesson I’ve taken from the Gosnell case: The “few bad apples” excuse trotted out when the pictures from Abu Ghraib first leaked or pedophile priests started making the news or for that matter when Eric Rudolph or Scott Roeder murdered people in the name of the “pro-life” cause, that argument somehow doesn’t hold for a criminally unethical and immoral abortion doctor operating outside of any legal or institutional framework.

  • Lori

    Even if one conveniently forgets 9/11 the number of terror attacks on Bush’s watch is still not 0. You certainly don’t get 0 for Bush by using anything like the same standard that gets you 6 for Obama. Just counting attacks on US embassies during the Bush years gets you to 12. If Benghazi counts against Obama then things like repeated attacks on our embassy in Karachi count against Bush.

    The Right really, really doesn’t want to deal with this. Throwing most of the Bush administration down the memory hole has been an ongoing project on the right since at least 2006. Non-liars need to push back against this, hard.

  • This. Not only does throwing around the term “madman” contribute to the stigma against the mentally ill, but it’s also often used to dismiss anyone who tries to analyze the criminal’s thinking. And as Gavin de Becker says, if we just say “nobody can understand these people”, we’ll never obtain the data to recognize and prevent another such incident.

  • DCFem

    What Carstonio said. Plus my thanks to people like Fred for actually linking the possible motivations of this crime to past bombings. The bad actions of a series of individuals are usually only held against people of color. This time people are at least asking questions about white, right wing terrorists. And that’s a good thing since so many past attacks have been perpetrated by white, right wing terrorists.

  • I know. I mean, it’s excluding the anthrax attacks(which were done by a white guy, so I guess that’s WHY that one goes down the memory hole), and the DC sniper attacks(which fit into their BAD BROWN PPL narrative, so you think they’d remember).

  • A good and sober writeup. That’s all I can really say. :|

  • Lori

    Yeah. I’m well aware that in Right wing world white guys are freedom fighters or just really upset, but there were plenty of attacks by scary brown folks on Bush’s watch. Hatred of one particular uppity black guy apparently trumps hatred for all the other scary dark-skinned folks and Bush is apparently OK again now that he’s no longer actively costing Republicans elections. Quelle surprise!

  • Lori

    Apparently we’re going for the full flashback package. In addition to the Boston bombing someone is sending out poison letters.


  • LoneWolf343

    I’ve seen commentary from British media that basically says: “Huh, Americans aren’t flipping their shit like they did 12 years ago.”

    Of course, I would point out that there is a huge difference between this and 9/11, but whatever.

  • Carstonio

    If the conspiracy theory rests on the assumption that this story looks bad for people who care about access to safe and legal abortion, then why did people who care about access to safe and legal abortion discuss it assiduously when the news first broke? If the mainstream media was scared to touch it, why did they cover it back in 2011? If lack of day-by-day trial coverage was a function of the mainstream media being in the tank for liberals, why weren’t Fox News or the Weekly Standard orthe Washington Times in those empty press seats? So far, the most plausible theory is that the media, including the right, doesn’t have a very reliable attention span.

  • To the extent this terrorist attack succeeds has very little do with the attack itself. It’s all about our reaction. We must refuse to be terrorized. Imagine if the bombs were found and moved at the last second, and no one died, but everyone was just as scared. The terrorists would have succeeded anyway. If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose, no matter how much carnage they commit.

    If only we had that kind of non-reaction to 9/11. Sheesh, we did not need that kind of justification for war. Fear is never a good reason to kill.

  • We also don’t have a Presidential administration eager to use a terrorist act as pretext for a radical shift in both foreign and domestic policies.

  • VMink

    And as I recall, they never really figured out who did the 2001 anthrax attacks, either. And ricin is stupidly simple to make, much simpler than getting hold of anthrax. =P So,… yeah.

  • It’s hard to say. Our prime suspect committed suicide and then about a week later the FBI declared him to be the culprit, then closed the investigation. Since then, anyone who’s tried to re-open the case has been quietly bribed into dropping it.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Agreed. The press moves on from these stories pretty quickly, and this one doesn’t even have the political angle that pro-lifers want to claim that it does. (It serves more as a warning of what will happen if all abortions are illegal abortions.) The Gosnell case reminds me most of that cremetory in Georgia where they found 300 uncremated bodies buried out back in 2003. It was a national story for a few days and then it went away, and I have no idea when the actual trial was. Same thing here: an abuse of the public trust by an unscrupulous practitioner.

  • Ray Brent Marsh was charged with 787 counts and a sentence of a few thousand years in prison, which his lawyers managed to argue down to 12 years on the grounds that a corpse has no pecuniary value.

  • fraser

    I’m not surprised people are throwing around “unprecedented.” In the late 1990s, post Oklahoma City and Eric Rudolph), I still heard “experts” saying in worried voices “What will we do if terrorism ever comes to America?” (I’m perfectly well aware terrorism was around long before the mid-1990s, but at least I could understand people forgetting about such “ancient” history).

  • Guest

    Hey, you shoot and bomb people while hilariously calling yourself “Pro-Life”, you gotta put up with the gratuitous digs.

  • Fear is a self-preservation reaction, and strikes me as one of very few good reasons to kill. The real problem is that to take care of the fear, you need to hit the right target and completely destroy their ability to ever affect you again.

  • I do not doubt that. However, some people seek to discharge their fear simply to make themselves feel better, rather than to actually neutralize a threat. Other people like to take advantage of that tendency and Bad Things happen to innocent people.

  • Lorehead

    Oh, but they used guns.

  • Lorehead

    I suspect it really wasn’t as deliberate as that. Recall the events leading up to it. Bill Clinton had launched missile strikes at al-Qaeda targets during his impeachment trial, therefore one argument in favor of impeaching him was that international terrorists were completely unimportant and he was distracting the nation from the urgent matter of his affair with such trivialities. So that’s what the entire Republican Party believed in the late ’90s, and this attitude persisted through the 2000 election and until September 11, 2001. Glenn Greenwald did the footwork of collecting examples. Or consider the speech Condoleeza Rice had planned to deliver on September 11, 2001, in which “Rice intended to point out that the United States had spent $11 billion on counterterrorism, about twice as much as it spent on missile defense, during the previous year, although the speech did not point out that that was when President Bill Clinton was still in office.”

    Immediately after September 11, the entire Bush administration panicked and decided that terrorism was an existential threat to the nation. This just became a reason to do all the things they had wanted to do before, including missile defense and invading Iraq.

    So I would say that the radical shift in foreign policy was largely an idée fixe, but the radical shift in domestic policy really was a sincere overreaction to having been taken so completely by surprise.

  • reynard61

    We know nothing about the perpetrator of this latest attack, but the Olympic Park bombing was BY A PRO-LIFEBIRTH EXTREMIST, explicitly to express his rage at abortion.

    Fixed that for ya!

  • arghous

    Bush may have panicked, but the whole administration? Hardly. It gave them the “Second Pearl Harbor” pretext they lusted after, and they used it well.

  • Lorehead

    They panicked in that, in one day, they instantly went from vastly underestimating the threat of terrorism to vastly overestimating it. Most of what they wanted to do, though, was exactly the same as before, and they just concocted a justification related to 9/11.

    Some of the things they did were things they hadn’t cared about before 9/11; they hadn’t been waiting for some excuse to invade Afghanistan or create a Department of Homeland Security. Others were just items on their wishlist that they pushed through when they had the chance.

  • Lori

    The Right has generally not been over-fond of black men with guns.

  • Lorehead

    True; there hasn’t been a lot of consistency, and since they now have a partisan motive to declare that things happening in the U.S. are terrorism, rather than that George W. Bush is doing a perfect job, they might call black men with guns terrorists if the same thing happened today.

  • LoneWolf343

    You can set off ricin detectors just by grinding up castor beans, a natural source of ricin. It’s not nearly enough to kill anyone, though.

  • Jamoche

    I would really like all the commentators on the West, Texas, situation who go “OMG IT’S NEAR WACO and 20 years ago Waco blah blah blah” to just shut up.

    (I have very fond memories of West. Stopping off there for kolaches after a road trip was practically mandatory.)

  • Lori

    Some people really are TSTL. The thing we need to be talking about isn’t irrelevant geography, it’s this:

    The operators of the Texas fertilizer plant where at least five people
    died in a blast Wednesday told government regulators two years ago there
    wasn’t a major risk of a fire or explosion from ammonia stored at the

    and this:

    “The company said the plant had no alarms, automatic shutoff system or firewall.”

    Those 2 statements do not go together in any realistic way, and yet the EPA apparently bought their line. Welcome to libertopia.