Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Bomber: Capture raises questions

Don't rush to conclusions

The capture this weekend of alleged 1996 Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph after several years on the run may end up solving that crime, along with the bombings of two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub in the South. It apparently ends a long, frustrating search by authorities and may bring relief to the bomber's victims, their families and communities.

But Rudolph's capture also is troubling, because reaction to it provides yet another example of how quick we are to draw conclusions and fall back on convenient stereotypes. It also raises unsettling questions about how effectively we are able to deal with terrorism of any stripe, if a lone domestic radical can set off several bombs and evade capture within the United States for years.

No sooner had Rudolph been nabbed Saturday in Murphy, N.C. than he was being identified in the media as a "Christian terrorist" - a shocking buzz phrase that is all but meaningless, although at least it may be giving Christians an inkling of how Muslims feel when news accounts refer to "Islamic terrorists."

Rudolph allegedly has ties to the radical Christian Identity movement and its violent Army of God offshoot. We don't know if Christian Identity truly reflects Rudolph's beliefs or merely became a convenient vehicle for him. But the easy generalization is to paint all conservative fringe religious groups as violent - even though the pastor of a church Rudolph attended as a youth insists his sect teaches non-violence.

Rudolph's arrest also revived some ugly regional stereotypes. The thinking goes that he couldn't have eluded capture for so long without plenty of aid and comfort from the community in rural western North Carolina - which has yet to be proven - and that people in that religiously conservative region tend to agree with the bomber's twisted thinking.

But the signs and bumper stickers in support of Rudolph were meant more to mock authorities' inability to catch him, not endorse the violence he is accused of, residents told the Associated Press. In nearby Andrews, the Rev. Jimmy McClure, a former neighbor of Rudolph, said his congregation would have turned him in. "Just tell them we all love the Lord around here. And we would have done right if we'd have known (Rudolph) was around here."

As Richard Jewell, the Atlanta security guard first suspected in the Olympic bombing, can attest, quick and careless conclusions can hurt, and they can be just plain wrong.

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