The last time someone went through downtown Chapel Hill committing an act of random violence, no one focused on his name, his religion or his nationality. Wendell Williamson was seen as sick or depraved or just a criminal after he walked down Henderson Street carrying his father’s semiautomatic rifle and a backpack full of ammunition, killing two men and wounding a police officer on Jan. 26, 1995. I was in my office on Franklin Street when someone ran into the building and said someone was coming up the street shooting people. We locked the doors. We didn’t wonder about his religion.
Back then, when it was revealed that the third-year law student said he heard telepathic voices and others were torturing him with his thoughts, we just figured he was mentally ill. He was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and sent to a mental hospital.
That was before 9/11/01 and the War on Terror came to mean whatever President Bush wanted it to mean. So when a Muslim UNC grad drove a rented Jeep into the Pit on the Chapel Hill campus Friday and injured three people, telling police afterward 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,” he was quickly called a terrorist. He may have been a U.S. citizen from Charlotte, but he was born in Iran.
The truth is that days after the vicious act, we still know very little about Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar–except his name, his nationality and his religion. Was he hearing voices? Was he acting alone? Did any political groups help plan his actions? Those are questions we need answered before we can decide whether he’s mentally ill, a criminal fanatic, or fits one definition or another of a terrorist.
But that’s not the point. Some want him labeled a terrorist because of his name and religion. Conservative UNC students called a rally Monday in the Pit to that effect, and one of the organizers was Jillian Bandes, a former columnist for TheDaily Tar Heel who wrote last year that “I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport.” Would they be as quick to call abortion-clinic bombers terrorists?
Their attitude’s a reflection of leaders who, by invading Iraq, assaulting civil liberties, and illegally detaining people here and abroad (mostly Muslim), have twisted the fight against terrorism beyond all recognition. If Wendell Williamson had driven a Jeep into the Pit and said he was protesting American actions around the world, he might have been called at first a crazed left-winger–but not a terrorist.