A Fitting End to a Terrorist (Too Bad No One Noticed)

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 4, 2005

Yesterday in a court-room in Atlanta, Georgia, Eric Rudolph was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. Better known as the terrorist who set a bomb off during the 1996 Olympics, killing a mother and wounding over 100 spectators, Rudolph was also behind a string of bombings across the southern US that hit women’s clinics and a nightclub, wounding scores and killing a policeman.

Yet, the just ending to the story of one of the more notorious terrorists met with little discussion in the international press, especially in the Muslim world. This is a shame, as there is much to learn from this event.

Terrorists come in all shapes, sizes, and seek to distort all religions. Mr. Rudolph claimed to be a Christian, believing that his bombings were supported by God. Indeed, it is thought he targeted the Olympics, the symbol of international peace, because his skewed vision of faith claimed the Bible found the mixing of any races and peoples to be sinful. The vision that Mr. Rudolph clung to was no more representative of the teaching of Christianity than the hate spewed by men such as Bin Laden and Zarqawi or Shvut Rachel, the recent “Jewish terrorist,” who killed 4 Palestinians last week. The reality is that all religions and cultures have spawned radicals and terrorists, whether it be Mr. Rudolph from the US, Dr. Zawahiri from Egypt, or Shoko Asahara from Japan (the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that known for the Sarin attacks). In this globalized age, we all suffer from petty, unlearned men who try to elevate themselves by claiming to speak on behalf of God and issuing religious edicts of violence. The challenge for all our societies is how do we face them down, isolate their hate and extinguish it, not allowing it to define who we are.

Tacit support is what enables terrorism to thrive. One of the more interesting parts of Mr. Rudolph’s story is that he was able to elude capture for more than five years, primarily hiding out in the mountains of North Carolina (a state this author is from). There were great resources put into the search, but besides the rugged terrain, a key challenge was that a small number of local citizens would refuse to aid police with his whereabouts, or even secretly leave him food and other supplies. It wasn’t so much that locals shared Mr. Rudoph’s worldview, but that they had issues with the same federal government he opposed for other reasons. Thus, they were willing to recast this murderer as some sort of hero, simply because he was on the run from someone they hated. Just as those that look past the violence and hate of a bin Laden, because they share a dislike for the US, those that tried to explain away their support for Mr. Rudolph are guilty of aiding and abetting the killing of innocents. We feed terrorism when we allow it to leach onto other concerns or overlook the violence at its heart.

Terrorism is best killed off through treating it for what it is: a crime carried out by men who would otherwise be failures. As like the range of self interested characters that inhabit the terrorist world, Mr. Rudolph thought of himself as a warrior, seeking to ignite a revolution. Taking his claims seriously, negotiating with him or featuring his ramblings on TV, would have only aided his cause and given attention. In reality, he was a general failure in life, who funded himself through crime, reportedly spent much of his hours sitting in the dark raving at the TV, and was really only a success at causing havoc. He was best described by the husband of one of his victims, “You are a very small man. You have a Napoleonic complex: little person, big bombs. That doesn’t make you a revolutionary, but a copycat.” He could have been speaking on behalf of the victims of terrorist attacks anywhere, New York, Bali, Istanbul, Baghdad, Madrid, London, Sharm el-Sheikh, etc.

So what will happen now with this terrorist? Mr. Rudolph’s spree of violence met with no widespread support, was condemned by religious leaders, and he was ultimately caught, tried in a civilian court, and sentenced. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life (by confessing to his crimes and directing police to his cache of 250 pounds of explosives, he was spared the death penalty), isolated in a prison. Fellow inmates include the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, and Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Perhaps one day they might be joined by the many other criminals with whom they share much in common.