We’ve all grown up hearing stories as a way to interpret the world around us. We naturally want to view events in terms of the traditional roles of villain, victim, and hero. And we want to know the moral of the story.
The bombing terrorized Atlanta and the Games and horrified the nation. The media became aware that Richard Jewell was a person of interest in the investigation, and there was a rush to judgment. Several news organizations, responding to leaks from law enforcement, reported that Jewell was the leading suspect.
In the summer of 1996, people wanted a villain, and unfortunately, Richard Jewell was cast in that role. Interestingly, the director of the FBI at the time was Louis Freeh. Years later he would investigate the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, where my team and I helped the university navigate another major crisis.
The Atlanta bomber turned out to be Eric Rudolph, who would go on to explode three more bombs before being apprehended years later. Richard Jewell was exonerated, but not before his reputation was ravaged in the media. He never recovered and died of heart failure at age 44.
Sometimes a crisis is so urgent that we cast the characters into archetypal roles prematurely. That risk is even greater today in the digital era.
Next week another summer Olympics will get under way. Let’s hope there are more heroes than villains in Rio de Janeiro.