Thursday, February 18, 2010

White Collar Terrorism

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
- Langston Hughes, "Dream Deferred"

At first glance, Andrew Joseph Stack's desperate act in Austin today looks more Cory Lidle than it does September 11th. The last reports have remained unchanged from the first: Apparently, the only fatality of the single engine collision with an IRS building in Austin, Texas seems to be Stack himself. Two were injured and one is unaccounted for.

In our hyper-partisan age, it's inevitable to play the blame game. Which lunatic who carried out the freshest atrocity belongs to which camp? Did he leave a manifesto or suicide note, did he post to a white supremacist/anti Semitic/left wing/Socialist website? What reading materials were found in his apartment/shack/car? Was he a reader of Sean Hannity or Michael Moore? Was he a tree-hugger or a teabagger? And, most importantly, which political party did he belong to? Hurry, dear Watson, the game's afoot!

Oh, horrors, suppose it turns out that he'd voted for Obama and hated neocons and teabaggers. Please, God, anything but that. He can't be one of us! It's in our nature, hardwired in our very DNA, to crawl away and publicly disavow ourselves from anyone who visits violence on others. It's OK to admit it. I'm guilty of it, too.

But the usual rules of finger-pointing simply don't apply in this case.

And one suspects that instinct for political self-preservation is what's really behind Robert Gibbs' oleaginous assurances that the Austin crash wasn't an act of terrorism. Personally, I agree with the Obama administration's official stance but there the agreement ends.

Because I believe that Joseph Stack was neither a teabagger or a terrorist but simply a snake-bitten American like so many of us who felt as if he had no other recourse but to fly a single engine Cherokee 140 into the IRS building. He was a man who had obviously felt so isolated that he had to content himself with publishing his manifesto/suicide note online because he felt or knew that in the real world no one was listening to him.

It would be very easy to dismiss Stack as a typical teabagger or a right wing terrorist because he chose to target the IRS building in Austin as a way of having the last word in a long-running feud with the IRS. But there are too many things that run counter to that. Stack, like so many of us, felt the Republicans were just as corrupt as the Democrats and in one part of his 3200 word screed, Stack even had this to say:
As government agencies go, the FAA is often justifiably referred to as a tombstone agency, though they are hardly alone. The recent presidential puppet GW Bush and his cronies in their eight years certainly reinforced for all of us that this criticism rings equally true for all of the government.

Earlier, he wrote this:
That little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0. It made me realize for the first time that I live in a country with an ideology that is based on a total and complete lie. It also made me realize, not only how naive I had been, but also the incredible stupidity of the American public; that they buy, hook, line, and sinker, the crap about their “freedom”… and that they continue to do so with eyes closed in the face of overwhelming evidence and all that keeps happening in front of them.

I don't know about you guys, but I've heard the same exact sentiment on just about every left wing/centrist blog, including my own at Pottersville. And anyone who'd ever written to their Congressman or one of their senators can certainly appreciate this experience:
I spent close to $5000 of my ‘pocket change’, and at least 1000 hours of my time writing, printing, and mailing to any senator, congressman, governor, or slug that might listen; none did, and they universally treated me as if I was wasting their time...

From inveighing against George W. Bush to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Enron, the Texas S&L fiasco to the bailout to the IRS, Stack was scattershotting not so much hatred but impotent, bottled up fury at a nation of corporate tycoons, corrupt government officials and an electorate living under an impenetrable state of denial that things really are as fucked as they truly are.

Andrew Joseph Stack's horrific act today in Austin wasn't an act of terrorism any more than was Cory Lidle's crash in New York City years ago. If anything, it was an act against terrorism, namely the quiet, white-collared terrorism of corporate America newly empowered to buy whatever part of our electoral process that hasn't already been bought and sold.


At February 19, 2010 at 10:48 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"Andrew Joseph Stack's horrific act today in Austin wasn't an act of terrorism any more than was Cory Lidle's crash in New York City years ago."

I disagree.

While reasonable people can dispute the fine points of official definitions, it is widely understood and accepted that "terrorism" means the use or threat of use of force against people or property, to intimidate or coerce, for reasons that are political, religious or ideological in nature.

This definition reflects the core definition adopted by numerous national and international entities. See, e.g., US Army manuals, which define terrorism as "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature...through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." See also Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Pt. 1, Ch. 113B, s. 2331. See also Britain's Terrorism Act 2000, which defines terrorism as an act or threat "designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public''; and which involves (a) involves serious violence against a person, serious damage to property, endangering a person's life, creating a serious risk to public health and safety, or is designed to seriously interfere with or disrupt an electronic system.

Stack's act of flying his airplane into the gov't building is by Stack's own admissions, an express act of violence for purposes of inflicting injury on property in order to intimidate, and does so for the purpose of advancing a goal that is political and/or ideological in nature.

Now, one might reasonably argue that such act is justified. Every person denominated as a "terrorist" takes that position as self-evident.

One might also quite reasonably argue that a given act of "terrorism" constitutes a legitimate form of resistance.

If the result of applying the widely accepted definitions produces results we'd rather not face, then we must either explain the reason for our disagreement, or we must question whether the term "terrorism" is really meaningful at all.

I, for one, tend to believe that the term "terrorism" is little more than an ideologically loaded substitute for "violence that I think is unjustified".

At February 19, 2010 at 12:11 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

I don't think Stack was trying to "coerce" anyone into seeing a political agenda. He didn't have a political or religious or any kind of ideological agenda.

His agenda was purely personal. He tried to cheat on his taxes and got caught. 3 times. That doesn't meet my personal definition of terrorism.

Flying his plane into that building was his way of saying the gov't that had ignored him, "Do you hear me now? Good." He wasn't so much a terrorist as he was an insane populist.

At February 19, 2010 at 3:55 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"I don't think Stack was trying to "coerce" anyone into seeing a political agenda."

Again, I respectfully and qualifiedly disagree. Stack's act was a calculated use of violence. It was carried out for purposes of instilling fear and/or was designed to influence the government. It was (again, quite explicitly) intended as an expression of his frustration and antagonism towards what he perceived to be an unjust and unresponsive exercise of state authority. The target of his act was not arbitrary. It was deliberate and premeditated.

To say that his agenda was "purely personal" establishes very little, and in my opinion obscures more than it clarifies. It is largely irrelevant whether a person who engages in acts that fit the definition of terrorism believes that they are doing so for "purely personal" reasons or for reasons that have some perceived basis in a more widely held belief. Every "terrorist" act (whether an act of legitimate resistance or unjustified aggression) must be based on some "agenda" that at some level is "personal", even if the actor believes that they are being selfless and acting in the interest of others. At bottom, I think the distinction you make either (1) needs to be more fully elaborated, or (2) renders an operable definition of terrorism and its practical application impossible.

As for "your" definition of terrorism . . . I don't think that it is meaningful or useful to adopt "personal" definitions -- not if we are to communicate about a reality that we both experience. Reason requires that we, minimally, take stock of shared understanding and recognize, whether we agree or disagree, as to the terms within which given issues are framed and represented.

"Terrorism" is a word that is used broadly, but often selectively applied. If we are going to use that term, let us begin by agreeing on what the word generally means as it is used and defined socially -- not what it means personally to you or to me. Any dialogue that does not take stock of the reality of a consensus understanding (whether that consensus is right or is wrong) reduces to solipsism.

I conclude by reminding you of my position on this issue -- which is that (1) by conventional definitions, Stack's act more or less fits the definition of terrorism, and (2) I do not believe the term "terrorism" is at all useful as a tool for understanding human affairs. This point is easily summarized by a stock slogan: one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.

At February 19, 2010 at 4:22 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

One dictionary defines terrorism as "the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes." I don't think what Stack did fits into either scenario. There's a huge difference between a suicide bomber blowing up himself and innocents at a marketplace in Baghdad or Karachi and what Stack did. His was purely a lonely, one man mission, someone perhaps pragmatic enough to know that what he did would change nothing about how our government does business.

Tangentially, one could surmise that Stack's act was politically-motivated. What Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in 1995 was absolutely politically-motivated but even in that tragedy, he had co-conspirators. He had an escape plan and used it.

We tend to define words differently, elmo, and the older we get we tend to stick to those definitions. This is especially true with an abstract, open-ended word like terrorism. Terrorism, as you say, has been "selectively applied" but one selected so often, especially by neocons, that its definition has become pliable enough to seem to fit any random act of violence.

You ask 100 people for a definition of "love", for instance, you'll get 100 different answers with only the most abstract concept of love being the common denominator. Same for "life", "poetry" or any other abstract concept.

I would imagine that terrorism means different things to different people. Since 9/11, we've been conditioned to think that any violent act against the government or infrastructure is terrorism. Rather than my being "solipsistic", my definition has some harder, more specific parameters. It's just my own attempt to push back against the meme that any act of violence is an act of terrorism.

Would it have been defined as terrorism if Stack had driven his car into a group of bicyclists or people waiting for a bus and had survived? Sadly, that's happened a few times before but not once had anyone defined it as terrorism.

When deciding if a certain definition applies, I have to consider the person's motives and their agenda rather than the means. Von Brunn's act of violence at the National Holocaust Museum, to my mind, was an act of terrorism, as was Scott Roeder's murder of Dr. Tiller because both were politically/ideologically-motivated and they had the tacit backing of like-minded people.

Stack was a lonely fuckup, plain and simple. I can't imagine a lot of tax cheats willing to get into their planes and fly it into a building.

You're entitled to your definition just as much I am entitled to mine and we'll just have to agree to respectfully disagree. I appreciate you weighing intelligently and sensibly on the issue but I more than suspect that we on the left are quicker to define this as terrorism because the knee-jerk reaction is to define Stack as a right winger and a teabagger. It's much easier to define him in those terms.

Which brings me back to the first point I was making in this post.

At February 19, 2010 at 7:27 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"You're entitled to your definition just as much I am entitled to mine and we'll just have to agree to respectfully disagree."

I'm not talking about _my_ definition. That's my point.

I am talking about the official definitions of "terrorism". Such definitions are, in my opinion, not unreasonable. Those definitions provide the means for holding people accountable for their actions, and provide the basis for prosecution. In this respect, it is quite easy to show that high ranking U.S. gov't politicians (including Pres. Obama, as well as the easier cases of Bush, Cheney, and the rest) have engaged in conduct that qualifies as terrorism.

If Stack was bipolar or suffered from some comparable impairment rendering him incapable of knowing right from wrong and so on, then perhaps his actions might fall outside the official definition of terrorism. At present, I do not have any information to suggest that is the case. It may be. The fact that he may have been stressed, misguided, frustrated, angry, at his breaking point, and acted in isolation is by no means proof against the charge of terrorism. Many who engage in "terrorism" can make the same claim.

His target was the federal gov't, which he perceived (rightly or wrongly) as thwarting his civil rights and depriving him of his property.

I conclude by wondering whether there are employees who work within the offices of the federal gov't who do not feel an increased fear for the safety today, as opposed to two days ago. If yes, then I would suggest that such a reaction is reasonable and further support for the proposition that Stack's act falls within the official definition of terrorism.

p.s. By the way, for what it's worth, the Ok. bombing was not a "tragedy" -- a word which is abused routinely. Pedantically yours, E.


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