SOCHI, Russia -- In one of my favorite stories, an American friend partial to staying with real people roamed the Middle East and lodged with a Palestinian family he'd just met. The hospitality flowed in the Arab tradition, and as the hosts and the guest grew acquainted, the hosts did have one question: How could he live in a place so dangerous as Los Angeles?
Yeah, when it comes to far-flung places, the human imagination tends to be incorrigible and inept. While it goes about wandering ungovernably into dark corners of worry, it does a lousy job perceiving the world's far-off spaces, no matter how vast. For example, some imaginations seem to see the entire Middle East as a 20-block radius. If you're there, you might end up getting hope-you're-OK messages when Cairo erupts, even if you're 1,500 miles away.
Perceive from afar an Olympics threatened by terrorism as has been Sochi, and it might cost you some sleep here and there. Arrive and see it, and the imagination doesn't get to run wild on you anymore. The eyes take over. The place becomes familiar. The area around Sochi is, of course, vast. Just getting out of the Olympic zone and into the city will take you 45 minutes on the train, and remember not to bring much. Those pat-downs are thorough.
Were these Olympics in one of the familiar American places, in one of the Olympic spots like St. Louis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Squaw Valley, Lake Placid, Salt Lake City, would the run-up feature concerns about terrorism? Sure. But would the outlook seem as uncontrollable? No. There would be some better sense of control, and we know very well the illusion tucked into that.
There have been 20 Olympics in 15 countries since the Olympics and terrorism first intersected at Munich in 1972, and even as fears approached several of those Games, only once has terrorism returned. The act of Christian terrorism at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on a Friday night in 1996 reminded us of the randomness and the cruelty and the incompetence. And it happened at a moment so festive in a place so familiar.
She looks uncommonly beautiful in her sweater and her pearls in a photo, a vision of vitality, and vitality she had at 44. Alice Hawthorne, from Albany, Ga., the person killed directly by a bombing for which the perpetrator later apologized in court, had a bustling, invaluable life. "She was a well-liked person because of her personality," her husband, John Hawthorne, said by telephone this week. "She knew a lot of people from her interactions with them" in her projects, and her projects abounded.
Mr. Hawthorne reels them off: protective mother of two, campaign chair for a state legislator, a seat on the Chamber of Commerce, a hand in the task force that helped keep a Marine Corps logistics base in Albany, the organization of beauty pageants, the organization of fashion shows, the promotion of other events, helping John with their businesses, their hot dog-and-ice cream stand, their teen activities center, both at which she would lecture teens to finish school.
"That was her," he said. "That's how she took her entire day. She had to be doing things. She wasn't one to just sit around. And all that was when she was trying to finish her college degree," which she did, in business administration.
Continuing with a portrait of the many things that make a person, Mr. Hawthorne said, "She was very outgoing. And no matter what the situation was, and this was hard to understand sometimes, but no matter what the situation was, she would always laugh. That was just her personality whenever something happened.
"She was a very stylish person. She probably had 200 pairs of shoes. Just a woman who was very, very, very stylish. That was from the fashion shows," from her involvements with national entities such as the Ebony Fashion Fair, the Miss Black America pageant. Tributes to her in 1996 noted that she organized a group to go see the Olympic Torch pre-Olympics, and that she said, "If somebody went to all the trouble to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, the least I can do is go."
She went as part of a week-long 14th-birthday celebration for her daughter, Fallon, who was among the 111 injured in the attack. John was due to join the next day. The ensuing years would center on the case and the investigation and the controversy and the eventual fingering of the perpetrator, all of which shouldn't have obscured the vivid, beloved person her family and many friends lost.
The least we can do is think of her, and of the Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol, 40, who had a fatal heart attack running to the scene, and to think of how what happened was unimaginable at that moment, even with Munich in the background. With the scourge of terrorism that always winds up assailing the innocent, the imagination is pretty much useless.