Thursday, February 25, 2010

Snap Judgements! - Joseph Stack

Should Joseph Stack, the Austin pilot who left a rambling political manifesto on his personal website before flying his plane into an IRS building on February 18, killing himself and one office worker in the building, be considered a terrorist?

David Pratt
I have a lot of trouble categorizing this one. On the one hand, it was an attack against a government agency, not a civilian target. It was also done for the purpose of making a statement about the tax system in America, however misguided. There's a disconnect in my mind that tells me that's not what we strictly define as terrorism. On the other hand, the man flew a plane into a building.

Can we define one guy snapping as terrorism due to the nature of the attack rather than the intent? That's what I can't answer quite yet.

I've heard people cry racism here because this plane crash isn't being classified as terrorism. As I define it, terrorism is the use of violence and fear to force political change. Did Stack have a political agenda? To a certain degree, yes. If you go through his "suicide note," and I put that in quotes because it's more of a suicide thesis, he rails against the government and "the system," if you will, for repeatedly working against him and keeping him on the bottom. So, if Stack is acting on political conviction, are his actions terrorism? I don't think so. It seems to me that Stack's motivation is almost entirely personal, and while I'm sure he would have liked to change the system, his actions seem too self indulgent to me to really be true terrorism. I'd file this one under "destructive suicide."

Max Nova
isn't this a question with only one answer if you're not craaaazy?

(Replies to Max Nova)
Daniel - i think there are certainly 2 sides to this question.
Damo - I think there are about 12 sides to the answer.

Short answer: It's arguable. But, I kinda feel like saying that Joe Stack is a terrorist is the equivalent of saying that, because I happen to be pissed off and decide to burn down (or crash a private airplane into, if you'd rather) a building that happens to be owned by a government agency, I have committed an act of terrorism and treason. Just a little hard to swallow.

Long Answer:

The FBI defines "terrorism" as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." Or, phrased otherwise, "the systematic use of fear to obtain a political or social objective." Often times, terrorism is employed in order to cripple a country's economy or dissuade politicians from performing their policies. For instance, when one straps a bomb to their chest and blows up a market place, the immediate effect is an economic vacuum - law enforcement is forced to scramble and people are now reluctant to go to said marketplaces to purchase food and goods or go outside in general, thereby putting a temporary kink in that area's local economic-hose. By doing so, whatever opposing political regime that may be in power has less resources, giving me an advantage to help push my ultimate goal. Truth be told - I haven't heard reports of anyone being less likely to file taxes or government employees quitting jobs because they're afraid to perform their duties as government agents because of Joe Stack.

Now, apparently Joe Stack was some member of an anti-tax movement in the good ol' US of A and his attack was politically motivated (He left a note or something). NOW, we're in "was he a terrorist?" territory. You could draw the comparison between his act and, say, an angry protestor blowing up an EPA building because he believes that power plants should be able to dump chemical waste wherever convenient. Honestly, I'm having a difficult time labeling either example as "terrorist act." I think the qualifying factor for terrorism here, maybe, isn't just political motivation tied to a violent act, but a systematic attempt to coerce the government to act (or not act) using violence - and I'm not seeing anything "systematic" about a man killing himself by driving a plane into an IRS building. I see an angry man, mad at the government, committing suicide as loud as possible. Was he negligent and reckless? Yes. Should Joe Stack be ridiculed and ostracized after his death? I think so. "Political Extremist" may be a more appropriate term. At this stage, from what I can see in front of me, "Domestic Terrorist," is a little reaching and a little hard to swallow. And, it smells a little like media sensationalism. Just sayin'.

The definition of terrorism is more of the issue here than the nature of Stack's act.

From the US code: "the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents"

From the Federal code:
(5) the term "domestic terrorism" means activities that -
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation
of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended -
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by
intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass
destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of
the United States.

So even the government doesn't agree with itself on the issue. The first definition says he was a terrorist, the second probably does not. Maybe.

Stack's purpose appears to have been informed by 1) vengeance (in a way not much different from the primary motives of the Columbine or UVA killers), 2) suicidal desperation, and 3) the desire to make a wake-up call for other Americans. The third purpose is the closest to a definition of terrorism, although he doesn't seem to have any particular desire to actually alter the government; merely to point out that it is flawed.

Of course, the tricky thing is that terrorism, in this way, is defined entirely by what the perpetrator hoped would happen. If he intended to alter policy, would that suddenly make it terrorism? If someone killed a bunch of people and happened to alter policy, would that make it terrorism even if the murderer was just plain psychopathic, or was trying to rob a bank?

I think, perhaps, that what makes terrorism worse than mass murder, theoretically, is the idea that it is systematic, and that innocents are being punished because someone wants to exert control over government policy. A random act of vengeance, while deplorable, doesn't imply that there will be more violence if demands are not met, or imply that it is possible to circumvent the rule of law through extortive violence. The real key phrase there is "rule of law" - mass murder alone is an act against innocents; but terrorism is an act against the rule of law itself.

Therefore, I think Stack's act - because he did it alone, and implies no connection to any movement, nor asks anyone else to repeat after him until thegovernment is fixed - is just narrowly outside the definition of terrorism.

(Let me be clear, though, that Stack is still definitely insane; killing innocent people is indefensible regardless the reason. "Terrorism" vs. "not terrorism" is a matter of policy moreso than morality.)
On a somewhat tangential note - a debate on this issue on one blog featured many comments suggesting that Stack's race is what keeps this from being defined as terrorism. I don't argue that if he was Muslim, even if every word of his manifesto was the same, it may have been defined as terrorism due to racism and prejudice. That was not my concern in this snap judgment. However, one commenter on that same post pointed out this interesting pie chart (which links to a Federal report) from an article entitled "All Terrorists Are Muslims... Except the 94% That Aren't." Enjoy:

This guy, for all intents and purposes, was clearly a wingnut, but whether or not he was a terrorist is difficult. He flew a plane on a suicide mission into a government building after blogging a manifesto of sorts and setting fire to his (thankfully empty) home, which mainly to me reads murderous wingnut. Sounds like he wanted to be a terrorist, but because he didn’t seem to be in his right mind (extremely paranoid, obsessive, etc) and he had no following to speak of, I hesitate to call what he did terrorism because as much terror as I’m sure he caused the day of his suicide, there is no residual terror that is, has been, or will be struck in the hearts and minds of the many people, institutions and ideologies he attacked. Or does ever-increasing fear and paranoia of That Guy Who's Just Gonna Snap And Kill Everyone in our society count as terror?

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