OpinionA column or article in the Opinions section (in print, this is known as the Editorial Pages).
I interviewed the Ohio State attacker on the first day of school. It felt important. Now it’s chilling.
By Kevin Stankiewicz
November 30, 2016 at 11:56 AM EST
Abdul Razak Ali Artan was sitting alone at a red table outside Mendenhall Lab when I met him. It was a little before 6 p.m. on Aug. 23, the first day of classes for the semester at Ohio State, and he was the first person I came across as I headed onto campus that evening.
That he was alone was primarily why I approached. I was on assignment for the Lantern, looking for students for a new feature in the student newspaper called “Humans of Ohio State.” Several paragraphs and a photo profiling members of the campus community, introducing readers to different perspectives. I wanted to find someone who had a moment to talk that day; Artan would be the first such profile.
I found a thoughtful, engaged guy, a Muslim immigrant who wanted to spread understanding and awareness while expressing muted fears that U.S. society was becoming insular and fostering unfair stereotypes of his people. He was measured and intellectual, not angry or violent.
When I introduced myself, Artan initially seemed surprised. It was his actual first day of classes at Ohio State, as he had just transferred to one of the largest college campuses in the country from a community college nearby. But he opened up quickly. He was soft-spoken, in a slightly accented voice, and friendly.
In a 20-minute, wide-ranging conversation, Artan told me about his major in logistics management. He told me about his family fleeing Somalia when he was about 10 years old — including fuzzy memories of his native, war-torn land — and then about living for years in Pakistan and how much he enjoyed it. He bemoaned what he felt were western misconceptions about Pakistan: “It’s not like people believe.” He told me about his family’s journey once they got to the United States just a few years earlier, first spending some time in Dallas before coming to Columbus, which has a large and vibrant Somali expat community.
Artan spoke calmly but seriously about his acute awareness of what he saw as major American misconceptions about Islam, his religion. From memory, he ticked off examples of Islamophobia that garnered media attention, such as the police being summoned because a man in Avon, Ohio, was speaking Arabic in a parking lot or when a college student was removed from a plane after he said “Inshallah” in a phone conversation with his uncle.
He told me, in great detail, about the biggest struggle of his first day on campus: finding a place to pray. That became the central element of the feature in the Lantern, something that felt both important and relevant, enlightening and humanizing, the whole point of our new feature.
“This place is huge, and I don’t even know where to pray,” Artan told me. “I wanted to pray in the open, but I was scared with everything going on in the media.”
His tenor remained the same, but it was clear those examples saddened Artan and likely contributed to his fear to pray openly. He even told me the possibility of being shot if he prayed had crossed his mind. At the time, in the final stretch of a divisive presidential campaign, he spoke of his fears of then-candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims, what it might mean for immigrants and refugees, what it might mean for those, like him, who practice Islam openly. How ignorance about Islam propels bigotry and hatred.
He said it is so important to travel and see different parts of the world, as he had. That if everyone could see the world with their own eyes, they’d be so much more informed and have less prejudice toward people who are different than they are.
As the start time of his class neared, I thanked him for his time, made sure the few photographs I took earlier were in focus, and walked home. It was a deep conversation to begin the weekly series. I remember thinking that it would be unlikely I would find a more meaningful personal story this semester. I went home, transcribed the interview, sent the caption and photo to my editor. It ran in print two days later.
There is nothing I heard from Artan that day that would have ever made me think he could be responsible for the brutal, senseless attack that would come just three months later. Nothing to indicate his thoughtful frustrations and fears would lead him to drive a car into a crowd of people on campus, that he would lash out with a knife at students and faculty, that he would make national news for what many believe was a terrorist attack. That he would be dead, shot by a police officer trying to prevent him from killing others.
I was out at the scene of Artan’s attack near Watts Hall on Monday morning reporting with colleagues when we began working to see if we could confirm the suspect’s identity. I thought about Artan and his story a few times since late August, but nothing prepared me for the Monday phone call I received at 1:31 p.m. It was one of my journalism professors, and mentor, Nicole Kraft. She called to tell me that reports of the attacker’s identity had surfaced from media reports; it was Artan.
My heart sank; that thoughtful, engaged student I had met on the first day of classes had snapped. He had tried to kill people.
I wished the whole day was a dream in the first place; I wished a gray Honda sedan never drove over a curb, struck a group of people, before being lunged at with a knife; I wished the sirens I heard on my walk to class were phantom. And then I wished — like I’ve never wished before — that the assailant was not Artan.
A lot of people have asked me if I regret, or wanted to rethink, what I published on Artan in August. I don’t. I don’t know what was in his heart when we spoke and exactly how, when or why that morphed into violence. The goal of the “Humans of Ohio State” project was to share stories about the people who make up the Ohio State community, from all walks of life. On Aug. 23, Artan told me part of his story, one that I still believe is important on so many levels.
But what he said about his wishes for open-mindedness and unity make little sense now given what happened on Monday, the terror he inflicted. His comments to me about his fears of a nation divided by hate and lack of understanding are now chilling, and what happened Monday has shaken me, as it has much of the Ohio State community.
Kevin Stankiewicz is an Ohio State University student who works for the Lantern student newspaper.