"The media blitz turned into a media circus, unfortunately," he said. "You get to see journalism at its worst and at its best. They portrayed us as ignorant illiterate hillbillies, painting us as the stereotype – distrustful of the federal government, totally ignorant of the outside world, close-knit, antigovernment. The things they said about us simply are not true." What, then, was the truth about Murphy and the people of Cherokee County?
"I would say Murphy is just a typical small American town," said the mayor. "Every one knows everybody else. You have your town characters, you live in a goldfish bowl. People are basically honest. They are basically trusting. Our people are tolerant, they are law-abiding, they do respect authority."
I would spend many afternoons like this one in the next three years, dipping into the parallel and paradoxical narratives that run through the story of Eric Robert Rudolph. Like the perceptions of North Carolina, the descriptions of Rudolph I encountered were so strangely divergent that I might have been hearing about twin brothers with the same faces and different personalities, one who committed the crimes and one who was captured and punished for them. Eric Rudolph was, by his own inclination, the most reclusive and enigmatic kind of outlaw. He left a faint trail to follow. And in doing so, Rudolph became less a real person than a touchstone for the expectations of others.
From the time he went into hiding after the Birmingham clinic bombing to the morning he was captured, Eric Rudolph had disappeared in more ways than the obvious one. In fact he had been slowly vanishing for years. He lived alone, paid cash for everything, lied about his whereabouts to his family and occasional girlfriends. When he was identified as the main suspect in the series of bombings, federal investigators profiled him as a "lone offender," or "lone wolf": a self-appointed avenger with no real alliances, no meaningful social ties; an inadequate male who converts his frustrations and longings into a campaign of murder. He tries to justify his actions by attaching them to a cause: saving babies, defending the white race, striking a blow against technology. The lone wolves believe history will judge them to be heroes. The lawyers who were later chosen to defend him were prepared to present a very different picture of Eric Rudolph. They describe him as a misguided but sensitive and engaging human being who isolated himself to protect his lonely mission. And this was not just a defense strategy. They looked forward to visiting him in jail; some considered him a friend. And one of his attorneys, a conservative Jew, came to love him like a son.
In many ways, offenders like Eric Rudolph are ciphers, blank screens upon which all interested parties can project their expectations and their agendas. And the more sensational the crime, the more agendas emerge. To the radical anti-abortion movement, Rudolph became a source of inspiration; to the so-called "patriots" he was a government scapegoat; to militia watchdog groups and pro-choice advocates, he was a poster child for the dangers of the extremist right. He became a trophy as well for the federal agencies, investigators, lawyers, government bureaucrats and members of the media who fought for position to define him, hunt him, study him, defend him, and try him.