February 18, 2010

Terrorism in Austin

It appears that a 53-year-old Texas man named Joseph A. Stack had some serious and perennial tax troubles and had come to greatly resent the government for pursuing him to pay back taxes (and interest and penalties).  If that were the end of the story, it would not be news.  Quite unfortunately, this is news, because of what happened next.

Stack's house was set afire either yesterday or today, and today he posted a suicide note on the internet that read: "Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer ... Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."  Then, someone who seems to have been Stack flew a small plane into a seven-story office building in Austin which houses the IRS.  There are many injuries but as of the time I write these words no fatalities and only one person unaccounted for (who may well have simply not been at work today for some reason).

Now, here's the thing -- excerpted from the Business Week story linked above:
Spokesmen for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security said that initial indications show no ties to organized terrorism.
"It does not appear to be terrorism," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama on Air Force One today. The Department of Homeland Security "is looking at all angles," he said.
"It does not appear to be terrorism," Mr. Gibbs?  Really?  Flying a plane into an office building trying to kill employees of the U.S. government isn't terrorism?  So how exactly are we defining the term "terrorism" these days?

I presume here that Stack was the suicide pilot.  In quantitative terms like scale and effect, Stack's suicide attack has fallen far short of achieving what al-Qaeda's strike on September 11, 2001 did.  But qualitatively, I have a difficult time distinguishing this from 9/11.

Can a lone actor be a terrorist?  Of course.  One does not need to be supported by a large network of like-minded individuals to be a terorrist.

Can a person be a terrorist acting against his own government, his own nation?  To be sure.  Timothy McVeigh is reviled as a home-grown terorrist.  Anthony Padilla has been held by the U.S. government despite his U.S. citizenship.

Does a terrorist need to have some kind of an announced or discernable political objective?  Stack presumably had one -- to get the IRS to change the way it does business, to leave people like him alone lest its offices be attacked in this fashion again.  Or at least to revenge himself on the IRS, which he seemed to view as some sort of oppressor.  Stack thought that achieving this goal, a goal detrimental to the strength of the U.S. government, was something worth exchanging his life for.

Now, my heart goes out to the families of the injured, and to the family of Mr. Stack -- his family should not be penalized morally for a crime that they did not commit, and they did lose a loved one today and may well be homeless and in serious financial trouble on top of that. I hope people can see that without getting blinded by anger at Stack himself. It's easy, too, to understand how a guy in Stack's position could feel like he was at the end of his rope, particularly if you've been through tough financial times yourself. So that makes the attack in Austin today a deeply saddening event.

But it's also one that really brings home the point that attaching labels like "terrorism" or "criminal" to a particular act is a very subjective thing -- and one that winds up having not just nomenclature but philosophical, political, and legal consequences.  This incident, to me, illustrates how smoothly-graded the shading between "terrorist" and "criminal" really is.  Which is why we need to be on our guard against turning a blind eye to the government eschewing Constitutional safeguards.  Like, say, Mirandizing a suspect, or arraigning him after he is arrested.  It's also a reminder that threats come from within the country as well as from without.

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