In need of moral clarity

Mary Katharine Ham

5/24/2006 12:07:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

"I was aiming to follow in the footsteps of one of my role-models, Muhammad Atta."

--Mohammad Taheri-azar

Do you remember Taheri-azar? The 25-year-old Iranian graduate of the University of North Carolina rented an SUV in March and drove it into The Pit, a campus gathering place for UNC students. He accelerated into the standard college crowd of preachers, smokers, gawkers, and cause-hawkers. He hit nine people and injured six. None died, much to Taheri-azar’s chagrin.

He told the press and the judge and anyone who would listen that he was seeking vengeance for the deaths of Muslims at the hands of bigoted Westerners in a post-9/11 world. He told everyone that he had intended to kill, had premeditated the killing. He even told the 911 dispatcher, just minutes after he had used a group of UNC co-eds as jack stands.

He was immediately arrested and charged with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder and nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill.

A couple weeks later, just eight miles down the road in the city of Durham, three Duke lacrosse players were accused of brutally assaulting and raping an exotic dancer at a party on March 13.

There were not dozens of witnesses to the crime; there was not an overabundance of physical evidence; the boys did not confess and turn themselves in; they did not announce to 911 dispatchers that the rape was premeditated and that they felt like their "white privilege" entitled them to certain liberties with those of other races and socio-economic classes. 

It was weeks before any lacrosse player was charged with a crime, by which time, the results of DNA tests administered to the entire team had come back revealing no matches at all.

Now, let’s compare the treatment of the accused in each case by local officials, the press, and the local community. I think the results are reflective of a bit of a priority problem in the moral clarity department.

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Local Officials

The president of each university made a statement on the occasion of his school’s respective controversy.

Chancellor James Moeser of UNC:

I agree, this could feel like terrorism, especially if you're standing in front of a Jeep that's heading toward you trying to kill you. As we have investigated this, we've come more and more to the conclusion that this was one individual acting alone in a criminal act.

Well, no. Why would we call him a terrorist? I’m told that "will of Allah" talk is routine in a traffic violation such as this. Moeser also urged more understanding of Muslim groups on campus and stressed the need for religious tolerance.

Meantime, when the rape scandal hit at Duke, President David Brodhead started a letter to the Duke community like this:

Allegations against members of the Duke lacrosse team stemming from the party on the evening of March 13 have deeply troubled me and everyone else at this university and our surrounding city. We can’t be surprised at the outpouring of outrage. Rape is the substitution of raw power for love, brutality for tenderness, and dehumanization for intimacy. It is also the crudest assertion of inequality, a way to show that the strong are superior to the weak and can rightfully use them as the objects of their pleasure. When reports of racial abuse are added to the mix, the evil is compounded, reviving memories of the systematic racial oppression we had hoped to have left behind us. If the allegations are verified…

Thank goodness for the "if," which comes after a couple paragraphs about the alleged attack and its allegedly racial motivations, conspicuously omitting the word "alleged." Brodhead did not urge more understanding of athletic teams on campus and stress the need for athletic tolerance.

Press Coverage

Here’s a sampling from coverage of Taheri-azar:

"Former high school honor student."

"He was one of those students who was very assertive in asking questions," Pitz explained. "He obviously cared a lot about his performance. Even in the very large class I taught, he was very willing to ask questions and get involved in discussions."

Friends describe him as unfailingly polite, yet he enjoyed provoking his teachers… He was reserved -- "He didn't even cuss," said Sean Cordova, another high school friend.

They are nice to him, no? The lacrosse team got different treatment. Strangely, their high-school extracurriculars and good grades were not often mentioned:

"An alarming record of misconduct in recent years."

"In a column entitled, “Black Panthers right on, finally:” Shabazz and his New Black Panther Party were in Durham, almost at Duke's door, to declare "guilty" the white Duke lacrosse players accused of raping a black dancer hired from an escort service."

"From the Today Show: And still to come, the Duke lacrosse rape case. Is there something about the sport of lacrosse that causes players to act out of bounds?"

"Other professors call for nothing less than an end to big-time sports at Duke"

"There's a culture of rape at Duke…"

Local Community

Within days of Taheri-azar’s attack, students were reclaiming The Pit, having interfaith prayer vigils and "dialogues" for religious tolerance on campus, implying of course that it was the campus’ religious tolerance that needed improvement, not the guy who wanted nothing more than to paint his white walls red with some American, non-Muslim blood.

There was one, small anti-terrorism rally put on by a group of conservative students, who wanted the administration to call the incident an act of terrorism. Those students were pilloried by the skittish campus and the administration for "inflaming" the situation and not being "understanding" enough.

In Durham, a poster featuring about 40 members of the Duke lacrosse team, none of whom had yet been charged, was plastered all over campus by citizens and students, associating all 40 of them with the alleged rape.

There is still, months later, a candlelight vigil outside the house where the alleged attack took place, every Sunday night, bemoaning the sexual violence and racial insults which may or may not have happened there.

The New Black Panthers have been to town to protest on behalf of the accuser. Jesse Jackson has offered her tuition for the rest of her college education, regardless of the truth of her allegations.

The lacrosse team’s season was canceled. Its coach resigned. Its recruits are transferring to other schools. The university had a panel investigate whether or not the lacrosse program should even be reinstated.

Much of this happened before three lacrosse players were even indicted.

***

I have heard it said that what America needs to win the war on Islamofascism is moral clarity—a strong belief that our ideology and theirs are not comparable; that there is a good and an evil and we are on the good side; that Western civilization, for all its faults, is a damn sight better than that which seeks to destroy it.

Taheri-azar and the Duke lacrosse players were all technically innocent until proven guilty. In one case, public officials, the press, and the local community did their best to deny the accused that particular courtesy of American justice. Tellingly, it was not the case of the murderous thug who confessed to attempting to kill his classmates, in a fashion reminiscent of Mohammad Atta, just for being non-Muslims—and then detailed his plans and motivations in letters to a local paper.

Moral clarity is what we need. It was in short supply in a pair of college towns this spring.