The rental car turned onto the sidewalk behind the registrar's office and rolled slowly down the brick path between a dining hall and the English department, a few steps from my office. "Beyond Time," an upbeat German dance song, played on the car's stereo. The driver, Mohammed Taheri-Azar, had just graduated from the University of North Carolina three months earlier, so he knew the campus well. Beyond the dining hall was a plaza known as the Pit, where students were hanging out at lunchtime on a warm winter day in early 2006. Taheri-Azar planned to kill as many of them as possible.
He brought no weapons except a knife, some pepper spray, and the four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle he had rented in order to run people over without getting stuck on their bodies. When he reached the Pit, Taheri-Azar accelerated and swerved to hit people as they scattered out of his way. His fender clipped several students, and several more rolled over his hood and off the windshield. Taheri-Azar turned left at the end of the plaza, hit another couple of students in front of the library, and then sped off campus just beneath my office window.
Taheri-Azar drove down the hill that gave Chapel Hill its name, pulled over in a calm residential neighborhood, parked, and called 911 on his cell phone. "Sir, I just hit several people with a vehicle," he told the operator. "I don't have any weapons or anything on me; you can come arrest me now."
Why did you do this? the operator asked. "Really, it's to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world." So you did this to punish the government? "Yes, sir." Following the operator's instructions, he placed his phone on the hood of the car and put his hands on his head as police officers arrived.
Before leaving his apartment that morning, Taheri-Azar left a letter on his bed explaining his actions more fully:
Due to the killing of believing men and women under the direction of the United States government, I have decided to take advantage of my presence on United States soil on Friday, March 3, 2006 to take the lives of as many Americans and American sympathizers as I can in order to punish the United States for their immoral actions around the world.
In the Qur'an, Allah states that the believing men and women have permission to murder anyone responsible for the killing of other believing men and women. I know that the Qur'an is a legitimate and authoritative holy scripture since it is completely validated by modern science and also mathematically encoded with the number 19 beyond human ability. After extensive contemplation and reflection, I have made the decision to exercise the right of violent retaliation that Allah has given me to the fullest extent to which I am capable at present.
I have chosen the particular location on the University campus as my target since I know there is a high likelihood that I will kill several people before being killed myself or jailed and sent to prison if Allah wills. Allah's commandments are never to be questioned and all of Allah's commandments must be obeyed.
Nine people suffered broken bones and other injuries that day. Fortunately, Taheri-Azar didn't kill anybody, though the toll could have been higher. Initially, Taheri-Azar had planned to join insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq, but he was discouraged by visa restrictions on travel to those countries. Then he looked into joining the military and dropping a nuclear bomb on Washington, D.C., but he realized that his eyesight was too poor to qualify to be a military pilot. Turning closer to home, Taheri-Azar considered shooting people randomly at the university. His letters from prison indicate that he thought about targeting the dining hall where I often eat lunch.
In the weeks before his attack, Taheri-Azar test-fired a laser-sighted handgun at a nearby shooting range but was told that he couldn't buy it without a permit. Taheri-Azar could have purchased a rifle on the spot if he had completed some federal paperwork, but he had his heart set on a Glock pistol. Later, at his apartment, he started to fill out the permit application, but gave up when he found that he would need three friends to attest to his good moral character. "[T]he process of receiving a permit for a handgun in this city is highly restricted and out of my reach at the present," Taheri-Azar complained in the letter he left on his bed for the police. Months later, in prison, he rationalized his decision: "The gun may have malfunctioned and acquiring one would have attracted attention to me from the FBI in all likelihood, which could have foiled any attack plans." Taheri-Azar may be the only terrorist in the world ever deterred by gun-control laws.