As I was walking to dinner tonight, two men in a Crown Victoria yelled at me on Stadium Drive.
“Hey white boy, look at that sign.”
“What?” I said, not knowing in the slightest what they were talking about.
“Behind you. The sign.”
I walked 10 feet to the other side of the tree. There was a sign stapled to it that read:
“You Muslim Savages, Go Home. White Power.”
I turned to continue walking to Lenoir. One of the men said, “Love your country,” then drove off. I felt sick.
There was a protest in the Pit today about the incident on Friday. The protest was designed to get people to start calling what happened in the Pit “what it really was”: an act of terrorism.
On the surface, that seemed OK to me. He tried to hurt people to push a political agenda. In the 911 call he placed to turn himself in, Mr. Taheri-azar said he did it to punish the U.S. government for mistreatment of Mulsims around the world. In court today, he said he was going to represent himself with the help of Allah. Quite clearly, his driving a Jeep through the Pit with the intent to injure and kill UNC students was religiously motivated.
Based on the textbook definition of terrorism, this was terrorism. There’s not many ways around that.
But, and here’s the really big but, what do any of us gain by labeling this an act of terrorism? Is anything gained?
The man sits in jail tonight with 18 felony charges against him. The FBI has a letter he wrote describing why he did it. There are eye-witness accounts linking him to the scene. It is obvious that he is going to spend the rest of his natural life in prison. Justice is being served.
The man acted alone. He wasn’t a part of any sleeper cell, he isn’t linked to Al Qaeda, he isn’t hooked up with some kind of Chapel Hill terrorism underground. He was a recent UNC graduate. He was clearly troubled, missing some key handle of a solid grasp on reality. It doesn’t excuse his actions. Nothing could.
And so, even if this is an act of terrorism, which it very well may be, some greater good is served by NOT calling it terrorism. In a post-9/11 world, the very word terrorism has connotations that spark panic, fear, and irrational hatred. Read that last one again. Irrational hatred. Like the two Crown Victoria men with their sign stapled to a UNC tree.
But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if it’s a copout not to call it terrorism. If it is terrorism, shouldn’t we be hitting this thing head on? Doesn’t it make us cowards to sweep it under the carpet because it’s easier to deal with, easier to handle, easier to understand. Isn’t it easier if we can all believe it was just a sick and twisted individual who didn’t fully understand what he was doing, the ideology he was misrepresenting, or the consequences.
But what if he did know. What if it was cold, calculated terrorism. Terrorism, in my mind, only succeeds when it creates the kind of division that I saw today in the Pit. I was so glad when someone threw up their hands and reminded everyone that this was the first day of class since it happened, that the campus was still understandably in mourning, and that anger was the last thing we needed. His words made more sense than anything I’ve heard about the whole damn thing.
I still don’t know what I think. Whether it was terrorism or not. The FBI hasn’t charged him yet, but they still could. I don’t think enough information is available to make a sound judgment, and for the meantime, everyone’s going to keep spinning their wheels with their opinions. It’s good though. Expressing opinions is a powerful coping method, and a way in which the community can heal itself.
It’s the irrational hatred that really bothers me. If those two men were in fact UNC students, and I have no reason to believe they weren’t, for the first time ever, the very first time, I was ashamed to be a Carolina student.
“There’s nothing you can do about people like that” and “Two people don’t represent a whole campus” aren’t enough of a defense. Any amount of sentiment like that, no matter how small, is too much.