Joe Stack Was a Terrorist

I don't know why this is difficult for people, but Joe Stack, the American who recently flew his plane into an Austin IRS building was a terrorist.

Some people call him a patriot. Others argue whether he is a criminal or a terrorist. What people are not doing, at least from what I'm reading, is defining the word "terrorist". Also, curiously, they're not talking about his victims (few, fortunately). Were he to have caused damage anywhere close to 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing I suspect that people would be more sensible about this, but hey, he only appears to have killed one person so far, so no big deal, eh? Unless you're in that person's family.

Let's get one thing straight: terrorism is the use or threat of violence against non-combatants to effect political change[1]. Ignore the the "proctologist with a flashlight" explanations from politicians or, for that matter, from most law enforcement officers with little to no experience with terrorism. This phenomenon, despite what people say, is actually fairly well known and understood and has been for quite some time. While those who truly study the field will have varying definitions, they all revolve around the central concepts of violence, non-combatants, and political change. Is a police officer a non-combatant? That's a subject of debate, but no one (even bin Laden, if you listen to him) denies that 9/11 was an act of terrorism because it clearly fits the definition.[2]

From this we can conclude:

  • A man beating his wife is not a "domestic terrorist". He's a bastard, not a revolutionary.
  • A hacker cracking the stock exchange's computers is a criminal, but regardless of his motive, he's not using or threatening violence and thus is not a terrorist (remember, without terror, there is no terrorism).
  • The Thuggee Cult in India were not terrorists because their use of violence against civilians was to honor Kali, not to bring about political change.
  • The Nicaraguan Contras, regardless of whether or not you agree with them, are extremely well documented as having used violence against innocent civilians that they thought were sympathetic to the government.

The issue with the Nicaraguan Contras is particularly telling. Many Americans thought the US was right to support the Contras. Regardless of whether or not you supported them, though, they still clearly engaged in terrorist activities. Like the many IRA groups in Ireland, whether or not you sympathize with someone's point of view has absolutely no bearing on whether or not they are a terrorist. You can call them "freedom fighters" if you like, but they're still terrorists. You can't have it both ways. They're not suddenly "unterrorists" just because you like them.

So what did Joe Stack do? He flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, killing one person, critically injuring two others and injuring eleven more. More casualties or deaths may emerge later. He had no reason to believe, and his writings support this, that he was attacking a military institution full of combatants. Further, he was doing this in protest to what he felt was unfair behavior by a branch of the US government. He wanted things to change and he wrote "Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer."

Thus, he's a terrorist. There's no way to escape this fact. It doesn't matter whether or not you sympathize with his position. He murdered at least one person and others may still die. If he had, however, flown his plane into a building at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, you could argue he was a guerilla fighter. He didn't and he isn't. Joe Stack was a suicide bomber. A terrorist. To argue otherwise is to make a mockery of the "War on Terror".

1. While most experts agree on a variant of this, they often disagree sharply on whether or not terrorism is exclusively the province of "non-state actors". The argument is that while a government might support terrorist groups, were they to directly engage in the same activities, it's an act of war, not of terrorism. Fortunately, this particular point is irrelevant to the fact that Joe Stack, not just a murderer, is also a terrorist.

2. For an excellent introduction to the field, I highly recommend What Terrorists Want by Dr. Louise Richardson, an internationally renowned expert on terrorism. Her's was the first book on terrorism that I read and I've written about Dr. Richardson before.

The dude was a domestic terrorist, which apparently teabaggers support. Remember yesterday when I said they were racist? I'm pretty sure the US is seeing John Birth Society II: Stupid Stikes Back.
I think your definition of terrorism is too limited.

It's not always political change they're out after. Sometimes it's ideological change, or they just like to instill fear in the population.

I'm using a commonly accepted definition used by experts who study the actual mechanisms of terrorism. Ideological change can count, but only so long as there is a societal transformation intended. Of course, there are plenty of gray areas. Were the members of Aum Shinrikyu terrorists who wanted to bring about the apocalypse, or just a criminal cult? Terror just for the sake of terror, however, is not terrorism by commonly accepted definitions. The definitions are important because if people cannot agree on the meaning of terms, it's very hard to have agreement on addressing important issues.

Further, when you start reading about terrorism (real research, not the idiocy that shows up in editorials), you find out that by carefully understanding the real meaning of terrorism, the appropriate responses are more clear. Criminal groups, apocalyptic cults, terrorists and guerillas often have large overlapping behaviors, but the response to each is different, so conflating them just confuses the issue.

Edited at 2010-03-23 01:55 pm (UTC)
I'd fuzz the line on the "hacker" example
Any more a serious attack on the internet can be considered violence. There was one the morning after my 5 year old daughter got severely burned in an accident away from home. The pharmacy in a strange town would NOT fill the prescription for pain medicine from the local ER while their computer was down. In another such case, that attack could (and for all I know may truly have) lead to the death of innocents.
Re: I'd fuzz the line on the "hacker" example
Yes, any line can be fuzzed. It's frustrating. In your example, I can easily understand your point of view. The idea is that the definition serves as a "starting point" so we don't get into the "wife-beating is terrorism" idiocy.
Re: I'd fuzz the line on the "hacker" example
Then again, one can also ask why would someone beat his wife? Terrorism is, at least in part, the intention of the actor. If someone wishes to control people through terror, then that person, no matter how small the population sample involved, could legitimately be considered a terrorist.

My definition of the word really does revolve around the intentions of the person committing the act. An accident killing many innocents would not be an act of terrorism, no matter how frightening it may be. A schoolyard bully, who intends to scare people into respecting him will commit multiple little acts of terrorism. Bin Ladin & most of his associates are a great deal like those schoolyard bullies working a larger arena & thus committing larger & more notorious acts. The goal is not as important as the intention.

This could get us into even fuzzier ground, one ruled over by psychologists, but by my definition the late Mr. Stack was very much a terrorist. And, by some accounts, a wife beater too.
Re: I'd fuzz the line on the "hacker" example
The problem with this is that expanding the definition of terrorism like this causes some interesting issues.

First, just about anything could be called terrorism. At that point, the term becomes meaningless.

Second, terrorism is actually a fairly well studied phenomenon and there are ways of addressing it that are understood, depending on the level of domestic support the terrorists have, their command structure, the goals, etc. To expand terrorism to cover anything, then the ways of addressing terrorism just get tossed out the window. It's important to understand that it's about violence, non-combatants, and political change.

Third, if you have a personal definition of the word and experts in the field have a different definition of the term, it's awfully hard to reach a consensus of approach when people are talking about different things. For example, consider the IRA. They wanted political change and simply treating them like criminals didn't work. As it turned out, they had a decentralized command and plenty of local support. Not all local complaints were unjustified, so the British government began a "hearts and minds" campaign to start treating the Irish people more like people instead of suspects. When that happened, the tide turned against the IRA with the Eniskillin bombing. The British government had garnered enough goodwill that this bombing turned the Irish public against the IRA. They never recovered.

This is why it's important to understand the difference between criminal acts and terrorism. With the later, there is a significantly different response. Treating all criminals like terrorists doesn't make sense as their motivations and the response to those motivations must be different.

As I said, the guy beating his wife is a bastard. Don't glorify him by labelling him a terrorist.
I 'overheard' this on the internet somewhere else... Oh, it was Joe's suicide note, actually, in the comments:

"What's the difference between a terrorist and a patriot?"
[implied sarcasm]"Terrorists=brown. Patriots=white."

That's the perception here in America. It is simply the practical application of how people are judged here. Doctor-killers and clinic-bombers aren't considered terrorists because a (nutbag) sect of a (major) religion support the political ideology.

Of course, for those of us on the outside, we can see it for what it is: terrorism.

Incidentally, I haven't been keeping up with the news and I wasn't really aware of this news about Mr Stack, although I read his (meandering, bullshit) suicide note. Although at times I did agree with it, it seemed to me to be a lot of whining and not enough taking responsibility for his own actions.
The guy was a tax-dodger of over 30 years running. He owned a nice house, had a nice car, & an airplane (&, ostensibly, a boat too). He just didn't agree with the notion that citizenship is not free, that he also had to pay the piper for the privilege of using the infrastructure. And he was about to lose all of those things he had acquired by not paying his taxes.

He brought his troubles on himself & decided to go out in a blaze of glory rather than pay up. In the end, he became an anti-tax terrorist & the tea party claimed a martyr.

Sad really. But he apparently did mean to pull a 9-11 on the IRS. & killed a two time Vietnam vet & grandfather of seven, who just happened to also be black.