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. 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.
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.