ATLANTA — Every plane, every passenger, every suitcase, every seat . .
The silence was what you noticed first. Centennial Olympic Park had been jokingly referred to as “the party that never stopped,” particularly by those who tried to sleep in the hotels surrounding it. It thumped. It rocked. It sang until the wee hours. Hundreds of thousands of people, meeting, drinking, eating, dancing.
Suddenly, silence. No music. No cheers. Just stunned looks and darkness and a voice booming over a loudspeaker, “PEOPLE, PLEASE, LEAVE THE PARK. THERE IS NO REASON TO PANIC.”
Every truck, every van, every car . . .
Within minutes, the surrounding streets were lit by flashing lights, blue for police, red for ambulances. They rushed in as spectators rushed out. The whispers started. Someone said a band blew up its amplifiers. Someone said an electrical transformer exploded.
“I was there,” yelled a man in a blue T-shirt, who grabbed me. “I saw a couple of people go down bad. This one guy was bleeding across his stomach. I was on a cell phone with my girlfriend and she said, ‘What was that?’ And I said, ‘You ain’t gonna believe this. Something just blew up.’ “
Inside a knapsack, left by an equipment tower, was the thing that just blew up: a bomb, the kind you make in your basement, some wire, some pipes, some gunpowder and a timing device like an alarm clock or a pocket watch. There were nails and screws in the knapsack as well, so that when this thing exploded, those sharp pieces would scatter with enough force to rip flesh, pierce a skull, blind an eye, maybe kill someone.
The FBI calls this “an anti-personnel device.”
And when it exploded, the Olympics deflated before our eyes. Bodies were put into ambulances, barricades went up, tourists were pointing and running away. And somewhere, someone was feeling satisfied, maybe even amused. And that was the scariest thought of all.
Every box, every package, every shopping bag . . . What price freedom?
How can you ever be safe? How can you check everything? There were public gathering areas like Centennial Olympic Park at the Barcelona Games four years ago and in Seoul four years before that and in Los Angeles four years before that. No one checked your bags. It would be logistically impossible. Besides, the last thing you think about at a world party is that someone is watching, planning to hurt you.
Such is the nature of terrorism, to make you worry about the darkness of every corner. And in that way, the pipe bomb that burst here early Saturday morning, on the ninth day of these Summer Games, did what it intended. Two people dead, 111 injured. Everyone on edge. Olympic Park was evacuated and, by sunrise, looked like an abandoned carnival on some lonely seashore pier.
Never in history has a bomb this small had this much attention. Pipe bombs explode with terrible frequency in such places as Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Sarajevo. Maybe they get a few inches in the back of a newspaper. But this? This was in every newspaper and on every TV set, and maybe that pleases the sick soul who called 911 to warn of the bomb just before it exploded, the man they couldn’t stop.
How could you stop it?
Every handbag, every knapsack, every briefcase, every purse . . . What price glory?
But let’s be clear about what happened here and why continuing the Games was every bit the right decision, even if it seemed a bit insensitive to the families of the two victims.
This was not Munich, 1972. In Munich you had terrorists who targeted Israeli athletes inside a supposedly safe haven, the Olympic village. They told the world who they were and what they wanted. They staged their terror for political purposes.
This is not the kind of terrorist we tend to get in America. We tend to get solitary psychos, deranged losers hoping to throw a little spotlight on their demented lives. No dogs can sniff these people out. No government agency can predict their pattern.
The coward who left that bomb got to see reaction on TV from Atlanta to the White House to Moscow to the streets of Paris. Maybe he’s somewhere now thinking, “Whooeee, look at me.”
He deserves no more satisfaction. All the good in the world can’t stop an evil heart from pulling a stunt. But all the stunts in the world can’t match all the good. Right now, these Olympics are stunned, doused like a campfire in a thunderstorm. But you have to make a choice. Live on, or live in fear, frisk everyone, trust no one.
Every coat, every jacket, every shoe, every pocket . . .
The park is empty as I write this, save for police and dogs and FBI agents. Across the street is a small concert stage, with a giant Statue of Liberty, staring straight into the area where these Olympics were changed forever. I look at Miss Liberty, and I wonder what she’s thinking.