Banality of Evil, meet Absurdity of Denial.
Such was my thought as I listened to the recorded telephone conversation between the man who confessed to mowing down several people on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill with an SUV and the 911 police dispatcher whom he called to report his crime.
The recording, which can be heard online, is so earnestly deadpan that it sounds like a comedy skit. Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar calmly tells the female dispatcher that he has just hit some people with his vehicle and that police can come and arrest him. He estimates that he hit, oh, maybe 15 people, maybe fewer.
His tone is such that he might be reporting that the paint is now dry and the carpet installers can get started. The dispatcher, meanwhile, is typing furiously. Throughout Taheri-azar's accounting, she repeatedly asks him to spell his name. It ain't Joe Smith, after all. You can sense her shock and her attempt to ground herself by getting the spelling right.
When the going gets weird, the weird may turn pro, but normal people turn super-normal.
You just ran over 15 people, got that, but would you mind spelling that name one more time?
Taheri-azar patiently spells and respells, while trying to explain his motives:
"Really, it's to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world," he says.
Then he notes, with the voice of a meteorologist on a flawless day, that his silver Jeep Cherokee is still idling and that the police really can come arrest him now. Aha, here they are now. The dispatcher urges her caller to put down the phone and raise his arms above his head, OK?
OK, says Taheri-azar. Click. Dial tone.
We now know that Taheri-azar, 22, is accused of hitting nine people, including five students and a visiting scholar, though none were seriously injured. He drove his rented vehicle into "The Pit," a protected courtyard area near the student union where students gather to relax. Witnesses to the incident reported hearing "bump, bump, bump" as bodies hit the car, though people hardly screamed, one bystander noted dryly.
As the story has unfolded, we have learned that Taheri-azar is a Muslim and a UNC graduate. He reportedly told police 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," according to the Raleigh News & Observer. He also reportedly said that he intended to kill people when he drove into The Pit.
Nothing foggy about that. For his trouble, Taheri-azar has been charged with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, inflicting serious injury. Bail has been set at $5.5 million.
What's less clear is whether Taheri-azar is a madman, a jihadist, a terrorist, all of the above, or just a loser who happens to be a Muslim. UNC officials have studiously avoided labeling the event a "terrorist attack," while some students have protested (to the acclaim of many in the blogosphere) that the university is caving to political correctness by failing to call a terrorist a terrorist.
I'm happy to use the "T" word where applicable, but the university may be right this time. Instead of a terrorist, Taheri-azar may be a simple nutcase who grabbed the jihad handle as convenient, self-important and certain to attract attention.
Narcissists come in all flavors. But Taheri-azar may prove useful as a metaphor in our ongoing search for clarity. To wit, the UNC Muslim Students Association has condemned Taseri-azar's crime, insisting that he is "one disturbed individual," and that his acts do not reflect the beliefs of the Muslim community.
Hear, hear. The rational and humane way to deal with this kind of phenomenon is not to anoint every nut with the romantic label of "terrorist," which connotes a philosophical framework for dastardly deeds, but to identify as wackos those who hijack Islam for their own purposes.
It is up to Muslims to be full-throated in their condemnation and marginalization of those who declare jihad against Westerners. All of them.
The list of nuts is long, beginning with Osama bin Laden and including al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahiri, Iran's Ali Khamenei, all suicide bombers, and so on. Here's a deal Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad could love: If Muslims rid their mosques of the jihadists, we'll take care of the spelling.