The Common Good
November-December 1996

A Combustible Mix

by Joyce Hollyday | November-December 1996

It feels "normal" again in Atlanta, whatever that means.

It feels "normal" again in Atlanta, whatever that means. The Goodyear blimp no longer floats over my house five times a day, and there's more in the news than the latest celebrity sighting in a trendy restaurant or the newest person to try dancing the Macarena on International Boulevard. The Olympics have come and gone.

I attempted to get to Centennial Olympic Park only once -- drawn, I suppose, by a journalist's curiosity (or just plain human nature) to see the place where "The Bomb" had gone off a week before. About 9:30 in the evening, a friend and I were in a sea of humanity creeping toward the park. New security measures were in place, and movement was extremely slow. We got about 30 yards from the entrance when word was passed through the crowd that there was another bomb. "There's a suspicious package," somebody said. "They've brought in a bomb-sniffing dog," someone else added. We decided to keep pressing on until we got a definitive word.

The definitive word came quickly: two police officers on horseback, blowing shrill whistles and waving the crowd back while the horses paced swiftly at its forward edge. The task was daunting, as they tried to turn back a mass of humanity that stretched for blocks. Parents pushing strollers or carrying children on their shoulders reacted quickly. A knot of beer-drinking young men made a joke about terrorists, then threw their fists into the air and chanted "Party! Party!" A man behind us started yelling in a panic, "Move! Move!" There was a moment when the crowd surge bordered on mayhem, and it was easy to understand how stampedes get started.

We walked back past the vendors of Dove Bars and frozen lemonade, the peddlers of Dr. Seuss-inspired "Cat in the Hats," the ticket scalpers on cellular phones; past Andean flute players and Jamaican steel drummers, the juggler of fire and a handler of snakes; past youth-ministry mimes, gospel-singing puppets, performing parrots, and a proselytizer with a microphone and a "Jesus Loves You" sign. On every corner, it seemed, in this wild mix of humanity, the conversation was about how shocking it is that bombings happen in this country. Such violence was always "out there" somewhere, a threat only in "terrorist states" on the other side of the world. Now this: Centennial Olympic Park, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center....

My thoughts were moving against the crowd. Most shocking to me about bombings in this country is that they don't happen all the time. A U.S. Census Report released this past summer declared that the gap between rich and poor is the greatest it has been in 50 years; the nation is more economically polarized than at any time since World War II. The richest 1 percent of Americans now owns 42 percent of the national wealth, and the top tenth controls 80 percent.

A June editorial in the Atlanta Constitution posed the question:"At what level does economic inequity threaten the social stability of our nation?" Is it not obvious that our stability is already threatened? Is it not clear that rage, born of being shut out and denied a decent living, combined with a few easily available, combustible materials creates an explosive mixture that makes us all sitting ducks?

THE RESPONSE TO the recent terrorism was a predictable rush toward new legislation: tighten airport security, require chemical taggants in explosives, expand government and law-enforcement wiretapping authority, make prosecution of suspected terrorists easier. Amid heightened concern about mail bombs, the U.S. Postal Service began prohibiting customers from depositing in collection boxes stamped packages weighing 16 ounces or more.

Such measures need to be weighed carefully. Long opposed by the National Rifle Association, chemical taggants, or markers used to trace the source of explosives, would aid investigation of terrorist acts. But the sort of wiretapping being proposed should raise some eyebrows. Such authority can easily be turned against anyone deemed an enemy or threat to U.S. government policy -- including the likes of those of us who have raised a protest on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to the nuclear arms race to the role of the CIA in Central America.

In the wake of the Olympic Park bombing and the suspicious downing of TWA Flight 800, 58 percent of Americans surveyed in a Los Angeles Times poll said that they are willing to give up some civil liberties to fight terrorism. Yet, what The New York Times called "the largest peacetime security operation for a public event in American history" didn't stop terrorism at the Olympics. Despite the presence of three times as many guards as athletes, computerized credentials, surveillance by helicopters and blimp, and an investment of an estimated $303 million, a fatal bomb found its way to the park.

We can never build enough fences to keep terrorism out. Our only hope for security is to invest our energies in creating a society in which access to work, shelter, and services -- rather than to the makings of bombs -- is guaranteed.

 

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, is in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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