Maybe it's the hollowness of the telephone, or the fact that his notoriety as a Nazi Holocaust survivor and international human rights spokesman has made him weary of those tell-us-the-meaning-of-life questions. Whatever the reason, his answers don't go very deep.
Does he think the Bush adminstration's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been effective in fighting terrorism?
"Believe me, I don't know. I just know it has to be done," says Wiesel in an accent of old Europe.
What should be done to pull the Israeli/Palestinian conflict out of its increasingly violent spiral?
"If I knew that, I'd win another peace prize."
Wiesel says it's hard for him to say he is ever "for war," but he is "for intervention--cultural, economic, even military, as in Bosnia," when it's justified to fight terrorism and fanaticism.
Those are the forces we still haven't learned how to conquer or prevent, he adds. "I've been organizing a conference for years called 'The Anatomy of Hate.' Hatred is the result of and source of fanaticism. That's the enemy."
What about the fanaticism represented by blind patriotism? Is there a danger in our post-Sept. 11 environment that the nation is sinking into such a mindset?
"It could become a danger. But I think our system is still very strong," says Wiesel, a Romanian native who's been a U.S. citizen since 1963. "We had one moment in history, McCarthyism, where that happened. But now, I think it will stabilize. We are trying to prevent terrorism and that is legitimate."
In 1991, Wiesel's Foundation for Humanity gave an award to George Bush Sr. for "opposing tyranny and defending democratic ideals" during the Persian Gulf War. Given what's happened in the region since then, does that honor still feel legitimate?
"Look, it was not called terrorism then, what we were fighting," Wiesel says. "I testified then before the Senate that Saddam Hussein should be deemed a criminal for what he did to his own people. I felt the president deserved that award."
As for the 2004 presidential race, he's not publicly supporting any candidate or party--though he's frequently asked to do so. Instead, Wiesel is spending his time organizing another conference (this one, on Sept. 22, is called "Fighting Terrorism for Humanity") and writing another book (when published, it will be his 45th).
At Meredith College in Raleigh, where Wiesel is speaking tonight, students have been reading his memoir, Night, which chronicles the destruction of his Romanian village by the Nazis. He says he hopes students will come away from the book with an appreciation for "the importance of memory" and the need to fight indifference, which he believes "has allowed all the evil in the world."
For Wiesel, the current face of evil is seen in the people who set off bombs in Israeli cafes, and the men who flew planes into the World Trade Center. "Terrorists. Suicide killers. We've never had such a curse in history," he says.
Pushed for a specific definition of terrorism, Wiesel replies immediately: "Somebody who believes he or she has the power to change history."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"Of course. They believe the end justifies the means, and I do not."
Elie Wiesel will give a free public lecture tonight at 7 p.m. at Meredith College's McIver Amphitheater. In honor of his visit, the college theater department will perform "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank" Sept. 18-20 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 20-21 at 2 p.m. Call 760-2840 for tickets.