The Long, Hot, Violent Summer of ’96
The new Richard Jewell biopic recalls a year with a deadly plane crash, terrorist bombings, and international stand-offs.
For most Americans, the year 1996 might have been as memorable as any. Bill Clinton won re-election against Bob Dole, the Macarena dance craze united the world, the country was amid the second-longest economic boom in its history, and the 100th edition of the Summer Olympic Games were held in Atlanta, Georgia.
The latter serves as the backdrop of Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial release, Richard Jewell, a biographical drama about the security guard who discovered the bomb at Centennial Olympic Park that resulted in two fatalities and over 100 injured on July 27, 1996. Initially credited with saving countless lives, Jewell became the prime suspect and a victim of what can only be described as “trial by media,” causing him considerable hardship, despite his never actually having committed a crime.
As Eastwood’s film so effectively depicts, both the bombing, committed by anti-abortion extremist Eric Rudolph, and the treatment of Jewell at the hands of the FBI and the press, were atrocious and tragic. But it also provides deeper insight into other social and political events that year, reminding us that, all nostalgia aside, even the “last great decade” was never as idyllic as we try to remember it.
In fact, in 1996, the Clinton administration’s crisis-handling skills were tested time and time again. The impact of those critical moments stretch on even to today, 23 years later, some of which, particularly in foreign policy, have yet to reach any decisive conclusion.
Take China. Since 1995, Beijing has attempted to intimidate Taiwan by testing missiles near the island. Taipei was then under the leadership of Lee Teng-hui, who was a strong proponent of the island’s independence from the mainland. With Taiwan’s first democratic elections set for March 23, 1996, Beijing sought to deter Lee’s victory by effectively threatening war.
On March 8, the U.S. called China’s bluff. The Clinton administration deployed an aircraft carrier battle group to waters near Taiwan; they were later joined by a second battle group, plus an amphibious group carrying Marines. In doing so, Washington signaled to Beijing that it was willing to go to war to defend Taiwan’s independence. Moreover, the Taiwanese weren’t intimidated; Lee Teng-hui’s popularity increased, and China had no choice but to de-escalate, lest it elicit a fatal clash with the world’s lone superpower.
The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis was merely the first chapter in what has since become a steadily escalating rivalry between the U.S. and China. Five years removed from the collapse of the Soviet Union and five years away from 9/11, America was arguably at or near the peak of its power in 1996. The successful employment of gunboat diplomacy against a country like China, with its massive military and a nuclear arsenal, symbolized American preeminence in world affairs.
As for China, it was a moment to forget. To this day, the Chinese military leadership cites the arrival of the two carriers as a “never again” scenario, and has since embarked on a massive military modernization program and revamped its tactics and strategy. The crisis, in many ways, helped shape the strategic environment of East Asia today.
It was to be a series of devastating events, during 1996’s long, hot summer, that would bring the U.S. back down to earth. Of course, the Summer Olympics, to be held in Atlanta, was eagerly anticipated by millions of Americans and preoccupied the minds of the Clinton administration. Both the end of the Cold War and subsequent events, like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing, forced policymakers to prioritize the threat of terrorism, especially with such a high-profile global event hosted by an emerging world city. It was on everyone’s minds.
Meanwhile, since the military defeat of Iraq in 1991, tensions with the Islamic regime in Iran had continued to mount, as Tehran asserted itself against U.S. policies in the Middle East, and Washington continued its policy of aggressive containment through embargoes and regional pressures. Iran fortified the islands near the Strait of Hormuz with troops and missiles. In May 1996, the U.S. deployed a second carrier battle group to the region.
The powder keg was seemingly lit on June 25, when a bomb exploded at the Khobar Towers, a housing complex for military personnel deployed to Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq. The bombing resulted in the deaths of 20 and injured nearly 500.
The FBI suspected that Iran was behind the attack. President Clinton ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for a military response, insisting he didn’t want any “pissant half-measures.” Options ranged from “pinprick” strikes to a full-scale invasion of Iran. Regime change was off the table but failing to retaliate was equally unimaginable. The president sought a hard-hitting response he could sell to the public with evidence that would unquestionably tie Tehran to Khobar Towers.
Ultimately, the U.S. opted not to retaliate, due to a combination of failing to conclusively link Tehran to the bombing and a lack of Saudi Arabian cooperation during the investigation. It would become another touchstone in Washington’s long list of grudges against Tehran and is cited even today as “evidence” of its violence against America.
The pressure was ratcheted up even higher when TWA Flight 800 exploded shortly after takeoff from New York on its way to Paris on the evening of July 17. Killing all 230 aboard, it was the second deadliest American aviation disaster at the time. Occurring so soon after Khobar Towers, suspicions turned quickly to terrorism, but it was ultimately ruled—though not fully proven—that the explosion was likely due to a short circuit in the fuel tank, which wasn’t deliberate.
An exhausting, stressful summer, at least for those charged with protecting the country, couldn’t seem to get any worse—until it did. The July 27 bombing in Atlanta brought the Olympics to a halt and put a damper on an otherwise magnificent event that saw a Parkinson’s-afflicted Muhammad Ali light the Olympic flame, Michael Johnson set world records, and Kerri Strug land a vault on two feet despite serious injury.
Perhaps the inspiring feats of athleticism helped the country and the world move on from the tragedy, as well as distract from the unsettling implications of Khobar Towers, TWA 800, and everything else going on at the time. Meanwhile, President Clinton’s favorable approval ratings held steady. None of these crises had any effect on his re-election bid: he won the popular and electoral votes by comfortable margins in November.
Of course, Richard Jewell didn’t emerge unscathed like Clinton nor was he able to move on from the tragedy. In fact, his nightmare was just beginning, as the FBI tipped off the media that he was the chief suspect—casting him as a hero-wannabe who plotted the bombings himself. After three unbearable months, he was finally cleared, but the damage had been done. Though he was ultimately regarded as a hero and a victim of a miscarriage of justice, the experience left scars that went unhealed until his death in 2007.
Likewise, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, Khobar Towers, TWA Flight 800, and the Olympic Park bombing all left a lasting impact upon America. The U.S. and China still appear to be on a collision course, with trade wars and possibly a world war as potential outcomes. The U.S.-Iran grudge match is now in its fourth decade—it came close to a shooting war last summer and a “maximum pressure” campaign has put the regime on the ropes.
Meanwhile, the loss of TWA Flight 800 and its subsequent investigation remains shrouded in mystery, emblematic of the mistrust Americans have steadily come to harbor against their leaders and institutions. The Olympic Park bombing was a reminder of America’s vulnerability to terrorism, of extremists in our midst, and presaged a world in which the media’s treatment of Jewell wasn’t the exception but the norm.
As the calendar turns from 2019 to 2020, America looks toward an election and another edition of the Summer Olympics. The parallels between ’96 and ’20 underscore why Richard Jewell may be the right movie at the right time, reminding us that the 1990s were neither the end of nor a break from history. But it can also serve as a source of humbling optimism. Even in what seemed like the best of times, the nation endured crises that made the future seem very uncertain. Yet as life went on, so did America. Perhaps the perseverance exhibited by Richard Jewell throughout his ordeal can instill the same in the nation as it enters another challenging year.
Edward Chang is a defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Federalist, The National Interest, and War Is Boring. Followed him on Twitter @Edward_Chang_8.