Public Eclipse of a Shining Patriot

Heroism always occurs in the sunshine.

Whenever we envision ourselves saving the day someone is universally there as witness. Whether it be the time we valiantly confronted and swiftly disarmed the guy robbing the convenience store…or the occasion we edged out on the ledge of a skyscraper to convince the suicidal girl she had plenty to live for…and including that split-second decision we made to rush into a burning orphanage and carry out those children…each and every one happened in a mental bliss of broad daylight.

This being Fourth of July weekend, even when we storm the beach against an enemy citadel to thwart their plans for global domination it is in glorious Technicolor (or at least in black and white).

As opposed to our imaginings, in reality all too often the best of us arises under the least photogenic circumstances. More times than not a noble act is undertaken absent any onlookers, generally the deed is unaccompanied by words of soul-stirring resonance and usually the brave actor bears less resemblance to someone from Central Casting in Hollywood to instead show a greater likeness of the stereotypical bus driver, waitress or elementary schoolteacher.

That was certainly the case for one of the most maligned heroes in recent memory, Richard Jewell. He was an everyday fellow who at the time of his great endeavor worked a temp job, lived with his mother (no father figure present) and had studied auto mechanics but whose dream was law enforcement. In other words, he was absolutely no different than millions upon millions of otherwise ordinary middle-class people just trying to get through their lives as best they know how.

There were only two distinguishing factors concerning Richard Jewell which separated him from untold anonymous Americans: that he happened to find himself in an astonishing circumstance, and that he responded to it with uncommon valor.

To fully illustrate his experience, a brief review of events is in order. On July 26, 1996, a Friday night roughly midway through the Olympic Games in Atlanta, a party was held in Centennial Olympic Park. This was an area intended as the “town square” of the games; a place athletes and spectators could mingle designed to foster a sense of community. That particular evening the venue was host to a concert by the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack which had drawn thousands of listeners.

Jewell was employed as a private security guard with duties of patrolling an area which included a five-story acoustic and light array as well as monitoring nearby V.I.P. amenities. The musical act had taken the stage before midnight but the atrocity itself did not occur until 1:20 a.m.

In the interval Jewell, who had been suffering stomach pains earlier that day and could be excused total vigilance, noticed a backpack surreptitiously positioned near the tower within his patrol zone. He immediately inquired of persons in the area to ascertain to whom it belonged. When no details were forthcoming he reverted to his training and alerted police as to the “suspicious package.”

Had this been the extent of his actions that night Jewell would be a notable figure although hardly a heroic one. After all, as a security guard it was his duty to do exactly what he did. Moreover, he was paid for the task. Unto this juncture he behaved as a conscientious but more or less competent employee.

However only moments earlier an anonymous threat had been telephoned to the authorities. Thus, discovery of the unattended baggage was taken with extreme gravity. Officials on-site determined to refer the matter to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (the ATF), which soon arrived and began to remove patrons from the vicinity. Here is where Jewell the hero appears.

Without either requirement or instruction, and at a time when he could have departed the scene without so much as a shadow over his conscience, Richard Jewell returned to the VIP facilities and began to inform and usher away its guests. He then rejoined the ATF agents inspecting the backpack. Watching nearby Jewell later recounted to Sixty Minutes II, “…in training they taught you, that [they] would instill in you: ‘If you see an ATF agent running, you better be in front of him.’”

Despite the fact Jewell was confident based on observing the reactions of the inspecting agent that the item did indeed contain an explosive device, Richard Jewell did not run. On the contrary, he made the choice to return again to the five-story tower and by his own volition evacuated its occupants.

At that instant everyone involved with security was aware of impending danger yet none knew how much time remained. Literally every second might have been the last for those who decided to risk their lives to assist concertgoers. Unlike all the others making that decision, Richard Jewell was not among the alphabet soup of state or federal law enforcement. He was a normal guy simply doing the right thing.

And Jewell continued to do it in the ensuing minutes. Rather than opting for safety, he as a private individual operated with those myriad agencies in managing the crowds and moving them away.

On the whole, Jewell was responsible for saving untold numbers of lives in the park that night. First, he discovered the bomb itself; at a late hour when many might be lethargic in conscientiousness and during an era when mass-casualty terrorism in America was largely unheard of. Second, he took it upon himself without orders to commence removing those vulnerable from the vicinity well before panic ensued. Third, once it was clear to him there was in fact a bomb he continued to put himself in harm’s way to assist federal agents who signed up for such dangerous work absent a likewise responsibility.

Had Jewell been lax in his duty, hundreds would have perished. Had Jewell reverted to being a bystander, perhaps hundreds more in the VIP section would have been injured. Had Jewell thought only of himself, maybe hundreds more would have been lost in the hysteria which often abets alarm. He did not do it alone, but without him doubtless more than the single fatality would have happened.

The eventual blast killed one woman and injured 111 bystanders; Richard Jewell was not left unscathed.

In the days following the incident Jewell was overwhelmed with interview requests. To his credit, he agreed to meet with only ten print media and for one photographic exposé. His belief was if he refused such requests his employer would be disappointed with him. Importantly, Jewell was paid for none of these.

Yet it took only three days for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution to attempt to destroy a public ideal. The headline of their story on July 30 read “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb” and was filled with innuendo, unnamed leaks as sources and undocumented musings. The article was read live on-air at CNN headquarters, also located in Atlanta. It was soon a global tabloid story.

Among the blatant errors contained in the original reporting were claims a “profile of the lone bomber” was created by investigators (there was not), Jewell could have telephoned the bomb threat and also discovered the bomb (this was proved physically impossible), Jewell was a “frustrated” person with an unstable history (also untrue), and finally, the newspaper made racial aspersions concerning the likely ethnicity of the bomber (which were wholly unfounded). The broadside later incorrectly asserted Jewell had sought out media attention (once more, opposite of the factual reality).

Unfortunately, such profound lack of professional ethics was far from uncommon. On the July 30th airing of the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw that reporter falsely attested, “They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still holes in this case.” Alas, NBC News has a history of holes itself. On The Tonight Show comedian Jay Leno likened Jewell to Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber.

Such persecution continued for 88 days. The mainstream media (virtually the only media at that time) besieged Jewell’s private residence. Television networks spent $1,000 per day subletting an apartment of the tenant next door to Jewell’s so as to observe him. At any given time were an estimated 150 to 200 members of the press, some with high-intensity photo lenses, trained on every move Jewell made. The object of this maelstrom stated, “They had people over there who could read lips. They had a sound dish. They could hear everything that we said. They have a person writing down everything we said.”

For three months this behavior was all but sanctioned by the FBI who allowed the media to be its willing handmaidens rather than act as a check on its power. That agency too kept both Richard Jewell and his mother under 24-hour surveillance as they allowed the real culprit to escape further and further away from justice. Agents lied to Jewell about seeking his participation in an anti-terror documentary to induce him to a police station where they promptly read him his Miranda rights. He correctly (and wisely) asked for an attorney. In the days which followed the FBI collected hair his samples, confiscated his truck, interrogated everyone he knew and compelled several to undergo polygraph tests.

The agency followed Jewell in caravans of government cars as he went to restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores, his lawyer’s office, to a Little League baseball field and even to a funeral home. There is no indication they ever investigated other suspects or even considered their first impression may be mistaken.

When this maltreatment failed to provide any evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing, Ted Koppel opted to discover whether any of the misreporting was genuine and the façade of this execrable coverage began to crumble. Soon thereafter Mike Wallace did a similar report skeptical of the FBI and media bias.

Finally on October 26, 1996, following a public plea by Jewell’s mother directly to President Bill Clinton himself, did the U.S. Department of Justice issue a statement that her son was recognized as innocent.

Eventually (nearly a decade after the Atlanta attack) a political radical named Eric Rudolph was convicted for the crime as well as other bombings of abortion clinics (often discussed) and a gay bar (often forgotten). Not only the evidence but Rudolph’s court statement entirely exonerated anyone else from planning or participating in his acts in any way. Rudolph is now serving a life sentence in prison.

In the years since, successful litigation on behalf of Richard Jewell against the news sources which unfairly maligned him resulted in settlements of approximately $2 million; though after legal fees and other expenses amounts were substantially reduced. All told it is quite likely Jewell received less money for having his life completely destroyed than the value of a single car owned by a pampered television funnyman who has never been any closer to death than when he races his infantile sports cars.

Indeed, even the modest financial restitution pales in comparison to becoming a disparaged footnote in history. During an interview in 2002 with media critic Adam Gamble, Jewell’s attorney L. Lin Wood stated, “People still come up to me and give me a nudge and ask, ‘Did he really do it? Did he get away with it?’” Accordingly, in the same discussion it was shown six years after the attack at least 26 percent of Americans still believed Jewell guilty of the bombing even after he had been publicly vindicated.

News coverage was a textbook case in everything genuine reporters should not do in pursuing a story: leading with conclusions instead of following evidence, making assumptions rather than establishing facts, blithely acquiescing to the herd mentality instead of questioning the narrative. Even now, very few demonstrate any awareness of the wrongs they perpetrated. Every year on the anniversary of the attacks such papers as The Atlanta-Journal Constitution should have front-page stories on the heroism of Jewell and the media aftermath. That they do not evidences a fundamental ignorance of our First Amendment and the exceptional responsibilities that its extraordinary freedoms demand of us all.

The Fourth of July is not merely a national holiday. In its purest sense it is also celebration of a military victory which birthed our many liberties. And while there are innumerable examples in United States history of honorable martial actions to be extolled, for many these have never resonated as deeply as the average person who goes above and beyond to exemplify the uncommon virtues.

By the nature of warfare one can be expected to risk his or her life; by the nature of civilian society we expect never to be asked to do the same. Even when we are thrust into such occasions there seems delineation between impetuous bravery and conscious choice which defines a true hero. An impulsive reaction may be brave, but it may not necessarily be more meaningful than involuntary cowardice.

When a situation begs response and there exists a pause during which the responder considers and fully realizes his reaction may lead him to lose all yet still makes a reasoned choice to go forward; this seems the essence of heroism.

How many people from those Olympics owe their lives to the ostensible shlub who decided to save them? By even the most conservative estimate many dozens and it is highly probable many hundreds are the direct beneficiaries of his decision.

Would we have shown the same integrity as Jewell if given the chance? We’d like to think we would, but we have to close our eyes to imagine it; and anything we envision with eyes closed is at least halfway obscured by idealism. Until then the best thing to do is hope we are never confronted with the choice.

In the meantime, a statue stands at the site of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing (which even bears a mark from the blast), but like most modern effigies the thing is an amorphous monstrosity lacking any genuine significance. There ought to be a life-sized bronze of the man, now passed, who made the lucid resolution to save lives and afterward endured torment at the hands of an American establishment which had forgotten what authentic Americanism looks like – a humble citizen engaging in a heroic act.

Hopefully whenever this situation is rectified they will place his monument on a site which is forever unclouded and where it can stand perpetually in the sun.

Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America. He is a lawyer by profession. This originally appeared on Huffington Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission.