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TERROR AT THE OLYMPICS

Americans Recoil With Sadness, Anger in Wake of Attacks

Reaction: Some take to airwaves, Internet to voice disappointment and cope with realization that U.S. is not isolated from terrorism.

July 28, 1996|SHAWN HUBLER and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Against all odds, it had been a week of communal joy, an exaltation of all that was best in us: The Olympics had seemed a blessed respite in a world of tribal thuggery and deadly rage.

So it was not so much with shock as with sadness Saturday that the nation recoiled together from the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park. Across the country, the pain and disappointment had a fierce clarity.

In New Jersey, a secretary was so upset she sat down at her new computer and sounded off into the ether, never mind whether anyone was out there to answer her. "It's really hard to digest the fact that some idiot . . . would go and do something like this," Mary Klinck of Hopatcong railed to no one in particular in her Internet posting on America Online.

In Bedford, Texas, a middle-aged businessman went out for his morning walk at sunup and came back with a one-line poem: "A few rotten people makes a good world feel bad." It rang so true that the poet, 55-year-old Marvin Crow, wrote it down and faxed it to San Diego, to his brother-in-law.

Here in violence-scarred Los Angeles, in a neighborhood where two kids got shot inside a high school Friday and nobody missed a beat, Michelle White and her fiance were moved to ponder the world their unborn children would inherit someday.

"It's pretty sad that the country's coming to this," said White, a banker, as she set out a picnic Saturday afternoon in Griffith Park. "You can't even go do anything fun without worrying about terrorism."

*

Once, it seemed, terrorism was something that happened in other countries' backyards, in places where dissent was stifled and left to fester at the peril of governments. The United States, it seemed, was bigger than such things--impervious to the lashings-out of the bitter and the small.

Throughout the country, however, Americans wondered on Saturday at the increasing frequency with which terrorism has pierced their consciousness--from the World Trade Center bombing in New York to the blast that massacred so many in Oklahoma City, from the Unabomber to the suspicious July 17 explosion of TWA's Flight 800.

Atlanta to many seemed to be a last straw. In a moment, the unattended satchel, that symbol of global cynicism and violence, was branded for all time onto the world's symbol of idealism and greatness--the Olympic Games.

For newcomers to this country, the psychic loss was hard to fathom. Gregory and Gayane Oganyan, for example, found the blast regrettable but not impossible to shrug off. In their native Armenia, they said, bloody conflict was a fact of life.

"It can happen right here. There is no safe place in the world," said Gayane Oganyan as she sat on a blanket in Griffith Park playing a Russian card game with her husband and 7-year-old son.

"Before perestroika, the Soviet people had an enemy. It was the American people. American people had an enemy. It was the Soviet people. Right now, the world lost their enemies. Maybe somebody is interested to have enemies."

For many others, however, it was the end of what was left of our shredded innocence.

*

On the computer bulletin board to which Klinck turned with her outrage, for example, scores of postings called for capital punishment, for speedy retribution, for prayer. People didn't know whom to blame. Some wanted to bomb the Middle East; some wanted to wipe out the militias. "It was probably some idiot kid with a [bomb-making] handbook he downloaded," one cyber-commentator wrote.

On KFI-AM (640) talk radio in Los Angeles, a program about the latest wrinkle in the O.J. Simpson saga was interrupted by callers wanting to talk about the bombing. One caller said he was planning to fly to San Francisco and wanted advice about whether the skies are safe.

Another suggested that the recent spate of tragedies reflects what he called "President Clinton's 'touchy-feely' approach to foreign policy. There used to be a perception that you simply do not mess with the Americans." The caller, who identified himself as a military brat named Joe, said, "It was never on our soil until recently."

In the third hour of her KFI show Saturday, feminist Tammy Bruce asked listeners whom they blame for the bombing. "Things are different. America and our culture and our sense of ourselves has changed," said Bruce, who runs an anti-domestic violence group. "We keep asking ourselves, 'How far down can human beings go? What's the worst we're capable of?' "

Even in those corners where the dominant thoughts tend away from global Realpolitik, the sullying of the Olympics eclipsed the joy of the Games. At Teasers Bar and Grill in Santa Monica, for example, patrons said they were finding themselves avoiding their television sets, fearing that any news would turn out to be bad news.

Kyle Rochlin, 25, sucking on a cigarette and nursing a beer, said it seemed that the new world order was asserting itself.

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