The enormous consequences of the case affected, and sometimes distorted, every aspect of it. Rudolph's bombing campaign was what the federal agencies call a "major incident," a bland term for a Big Crime. Big Crimes are spectacles that draw public interest and law enforcement attention beyond what would logically be expected based on the damage done to property or the number of casualties. Big Crimes are like plane crashes; more people are killed on the highways every day, but we are still transfixed by the special horror of the fuselage tumbling from the sky. Serial crimes are the most sensational of all because they are rare, frightening and seemingly random with a built-in dramatic hook: Where will he strike next?
The government pursued Rudolph with such ferocity not just for the sake of his victims, although they were important, but for the audacity of his bombings. An attack on the Olympics while the games were being hosted on US soil was more than just a bombing, it was domestic terrorism, a symbolic attack on America itself. The subsequent bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham, which appeared to be aimed at law enforcement personnel as well as the specific targets, amplified the government's response. And once the death penalty was put on the table, another layer of symbolism was added to the mix, raising the stakes for another group, the anti-death penalty advocates.
Outside of this circle of interest, the American public seemed both fascinated and repelled by Rudolph. As a society we tend to have at least two conflicting impulses when it comes to famous fugitives: The first is to ignore our legal presumption of innocence and assume they are guilty as soon as they are accused, try them and execute them without mercy. The other impulse is to romanticize them in some way, to separate them from the cowardice and brutality of their crimes and to fit them into the archetype of the outlaw hero. They become Robin Hood or Jesse James or Pretty Boy Floyd – guys who perform daring deeds, who outwit the authorities, who are forced by circumstance to ride on the other side of the law, and who always have some redeeming qualities to burnish their legends.
Rudolph seems aware that his story occupies the uneasy territory between the outlaw hero and the deranged killer, the Christian soldier and the despised terrorist. He is a prodigious reader of history, philosophy and Russian literature – he has informed me, without irony, that Crime and Punishment is his favorite novel. He followed his own publicity from wherever he was hiding, and while in jail obsessively watched news reports about his case. He held his silence for years before he finally tried to explain himself -- first in brief court statements, then through a handful of broadsides published on the Army of God website, and, finally, in a series of written interviews with me.
I had my own agenda, of course. Eric Rudolph was a puzzle I needed to solve for the sake of a story I wanted to tell.