The Tragedy of the Great American Hero

Richard Jewell, 1962-2007

Five’ll gitcha ten, you don’t remember who this guy was. Heck, there are people who would really prefer that you forget him. He’s an embarrassment, a reminder of their own failure and foolishness and hate.

And you might be wondering why the guy running the comic book blog is writing about a guy you’ve never heard of.

Let me refresh your memory.

In 1996, Atlanta was playing host to the Summer Olympics. Big money, big TV audience, big publicity. The U.S. picked up 101 medals. Muhammad Ali lit the torch in the opening ceremonies, and everyone thought that was pretty much awesome. Kerri Strug injured her ankle and still landed a near-perfect score on the vault. Kurt Angle, before he became a professional wrestler, won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling with a severely injured neck.

Richard Jewell was a nobody, overweight, unremarkable, unsuccessful, living with his mother. He got a job as a lowly security guard at Centennial Olympic Park during a concert on July 27. He noticed a stray knapsack lying under a bench, got suspicious, called it in, and started moving people away from the area. Three pipe bombs inside the knapsack exploded, killing one woman and injuring 111 people. A Turkish cameraman died of a heart attack while rushing to film the incident.

Jewell was hailed as a hero who certainly prevented the deaths of dozens of people. But after four days, the FBI decided he might be a suspect. They tipped off the media. And for the next several weeks, while the feds repeatedly searched his mother’s house, many media companies all but declared him guilty of the bombing.

The FBI eventually had to announce that he wasn’t a suspect, and the press slinked away, probably looking for some small cute animal they could stab. Jewell had gone from nobody to hero to villain… but instead of being hailed, again, as the hero of the Olympic Park bombing, he just went back to being a nobody. He had trouble getting jobs because many still believed he was the bomber. He got settlements from the New York Post and NBC, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution fought his suit clear ’til his death.

Turns out the bomber was a psychotic “Christian Identity” terrorist named Eric Rudolph. Rudolph later bombed a lesbian bar and two abortion clinics, setting secondary bombs that would target police, fire, and emergency medical personnel. When the cops finally identified him, he went into hiding for over five years. When he was caught, he took a plea bargain solely to avoid the death penalty. He’s expressed no regrets, and he sends out letters that are generally considered harassment against his victims and incitement for his supporters to commit more violence. He’s scum, a racist, and a terrorist, and I’m thoroughly happy that he’ll die in prison.

Last year, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue officially commended Jewell for his heroism. I gotta tell you, from what I’ve read, Perdue hasn’t been the greatest governor around, but when I heard that he’d done that for Jewell, my admiration for him jumped sky-high. He got the chance to take a guy who’s been dumped on by life, despite the good he’d done, he brought him back before the public, and said, “This guy’s a hero. Give him the respect he deserves.” That’s a beautiful thing to do for someone. It doesn’t make up for all the crap he’d had to put up with, but it was great to see that someone remembered him.

Jewell was diagnosed with diabetes early this year, and his kidneys were failing. He died on August 29th. The media reported his death, but too many omitted their parts in trying to put a hero in prison.

If we lived in the Marvel Universe, Captain America would’ve shaken Richard Jewell’s hand on national TV, lectured us about our fickle loyalties, and made sure Nick Fury gave Jewell a good job in SHIELD. If we lived in the DC Universe, Batman would’ve cleared Jewell in two days, had Rudolph in custody in three, and the Wayne Foundation would’ve made sure Jewell and his mom spent the rest of the rest of their lives comfortably well-off and suitably respected by everyone.

We live in the real world, where people have fan websites for murderous terrorists like Eric Rudolph, and where there are no statues honoring heroes like Richard Jewell.

That’s insane, and that’s all there is to say about it.

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