By Shannon Blosser
A recent act of terrorism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill left students and faculty in disbelief, wondering why a former student would ram an SUV into a crowded group of students. Many of them extended their disbelief to include a willful denial that the attack was an act of terrorism at all.
Mohammad Reza Taheri-azar, a 22-year-old Iranian native who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in December, rented a Jeep Cherokee Laredo from a local rent-a-car dealership and launched his attack at a popular gathering place for students known as the Pit, located near the student union and campus libraries. Nine people were injured — none seriously — in Taheri-azars rampage. Three days later, he made his first appearance in Orange County District Court, where prosecutors read out the 18 charges levied against him, including nine counts of attempted murder.
Coverage of the offense has focused on two themes: the reasons for the attack and the reaction of the campus community. The two story lines would presumably be closely related: The motives are revealed, and the campus proceeds to denounce them. But it hasnt been that simple, and the second story line has become oddly disconnected from the first.
Taheri-azar has not exactly been ambiguous about his motives. Im thankful youre here to give me this trial and to learn more about the will of Allah, Taheri-azar said to District Court Judge Pat DeVine. Taheria-azar intended his attack as a response to U.S. foreign policy, and by doing so he thought that he would be viewed as a martyr by radical Islamists who promote terror worldwide.
UNC-Chapel Hill officials released an audio of Taheri-azars 911 call to dispatchers turning himself in, just moments after he ran over the students.
In the four-minute call, Taheri-azar sounded as though he couldnt wait to be arrested. When the dispatcher asked why he ran over the students, Taheri-azar responded, The reason is to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.
Perhaps Taheri-azars decision to attack UNC-Chapel Hill had something to do with a cartoon published recently in The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper of UNC-Chapel Hill, depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
There is more to Taheri-azar than just his words to police. His actions in court, and the images of him in the media, suggest that he views himself as a hero in the Muslim world. A smug smile as he walked out of the courthouse and an exuberant wave to the TV cameras indicated that he thinks someone in the Middle East, or maybe in the United States, will look upon him as a leader and follow his example. He reportedly told detectives that people all over the world are being killed in war and now it is the people in the United States turn to be killed. If this comment doesnt lead people to conclude that this was an act of terrorism, it is difficult to see what could.
Some students took the initiative to denounce the attack and stage a rally to label it as an act of terrorism. Jillian Bandes, a columnist who was fired from The Daily Tar Heel in September for comments she made about Muslims and terrorism, told The News & Observer, Why not label terrorism? Not doing so suggests a certain leniency toward that kind of thing.
But many of the attendees at the rally were there to denounce the use of the term. Muslim students told the media they were offended by those who believe it was an act of terrorism. By Monday afternoon, signs were seen in the Pit that called the rally organizers racists and asking about 100,000 people killed in Iraq.
A UNC sophomore, Johnathan Pourzal, told the Durham Herald-Sun that the mission of the event organizers offended him. By calling it religious violence, you are telling people that Muslims are violent, he said.