Joe Stack’s deliberate crashing of his small airplane into the Echelon Building in Austin, TX (which housed some offices of the IRS) on February 18 was remarkable not only because of its extreme character but also because of how pundits across the political spectrum have embraced him. Even his own adult daughter called him “a hero,” and there was widespread resistance to calling his actions “terrorism.” Stack and one other person were killed in the attack.
As Glenn Greenwald noted on salon.com, there is an element of racism and Islamophobia in refusing to label an American citizen’s political violence as terrorism. Responding to Fox News’ claim that it wasn’t “terrorism in the usual sense that most of us are used to,” Greenwald commented, “We all know who commits terrorism in ‘that capital T way,’ and it’s not people named Joseph Stack.”
In sum: A Muslim who attacks military targets . . . in their own countries that have been invaded by a foreign army, are Terrorists. A non-Muslim who flies an airplane into a government building in pursuit of a political agenda is not, or at least is not a Real Terrorist with a capital T—not the kind who should be tortured and thrown in a cage.
Indeed, when questioned on this issue, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the incident did not appear to be terrorism, because he did not suspect “somebody like an Al-Qaeda.”
However, the cogency of Stack’s manifesto also helps to explain why he has not been denounced as a terrorist. The fact that he was a white US citizen just meant that his political rationale would receive careful attention. Although a number of media outlets, like Business Insider, called Stack’s manifesto “insane,” it had clear resonance with the anger and hopelessness of working-class Americans.
Scholarly research on political violence (including my own) shows that such actions arise from a combination of grievances against the system and the perception that there is nowhere to give public voice to or demand redress of those grievances. I have documented how, too-often, corporate executives and political leaders have portrayed political and social problems as psychological ones. Stack resists this impulse in the opening paragraph of his letter: “The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn’t enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken.”
Stack’s manifesto decried the US government and its spending priorities. A small-time, self-employed tax resister, Stack focused his outrage on a 1986 tax code change classifying IT industry consultants as employees rather than as self-employed. This shift, Stack wrote, reduced him to the status of a criminal and a “non-citizen slave.”
Stack railed against the use of his money to bail out corporations who, he observes, have committed “unthinkable atrocities”: When it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days, if not hours.” He charged the American medical system with the murder of “tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. . . . When the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for their mistakes.”
It should come as no surprise that this statement has resonated with the desperation and anger of thousands of people across the country watching real health care reform go down the drain, facing layoffs and futile job searches in a time of double-digit unemployment, and living through the gutting of public services, including education. People also recognize that the source of their outrage is the twisted priorities of a system that prioritizes endless wars over meeting people’s needs and pays corporate economy-crashing finance executives billions in bonuses.
At the end of his letter (and in spite of his place in the petit-bourgeoisie, not the working class), Stack locates himself in a line of people who have died “for freedom in this country.” He quotes the communist manifesto approvingly against the capitalist creed (“From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed”): “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
The Business Insider Article that labeled Stack’s manifestor “insane” prompted hundreds of responses to the contrary. A reader from Elkhart, Indiana, wrote, “I’ve been unemployed since 8/2008. No jobs anywhere in the area. . . . . I’ve been selling auto parts since I was 16, and in a few weeks, I’ll be 50. I don’t want to end up in a homeless shelter.” Another wrote, “I don’t agree with his actions, but I certainly feel for him.”
Yet another added:
He was a long way from a crackpot. Today Wachovia announced that they have foreclosed only on 1% of the people in default. The country is hurting because of big banks and Wall Street and nobody is protecting the average citizen. In fact, the Supreme Court just ruled that corporations can put as much money as they like behind any candidate that they feel. Well guest what: that candidate will be the one who will screw the American public the most so that they can continue to get away with obscene profits while we suffer.
Stack’s analysis may make common sense to many working-class Americans today, but his drastic action represents his perception that he had neither options for public expression of his anger nor agency in affecting the actions of the government and corporations motivated his drastic actions. (He also set his family’s home on fire; no one was injured.) A sympathizer online wrote, “The man killed himself because he could not access his government in a real and meaningful way.”
Writing that a body count was the only thing that would get people’s attention, he hoped that his actions would prompt others to “rise up and revolt.” His sense of isolation and inability to affect the direction of his life, much less that of the entire nation, led him to the tragic conclusion that (individual) “violence is the only answer.”
In previous research, I (along with two co-authors) have observed how would-be Presidential assassins express similar hopelessness. Sam Byck, who attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon in 1974, wrote that he felt like one grain of sand on an endless beach. He had picketed the White House continually and even tried to join the Black Panthers. But both the economy and the Left were in decline, and opportunities for collective expression and resistance increasingly few. As Stack also noted, the corporate control of the media and political process gives the “little guy” very little voice.
At present, Stack’s words and deeds reflect the period we are in: a time of profound class anger but without yet the corresponding organization and confidence to mount collective, public political resistance. Contrary to Stack’s analysis, Americans are not “zombies.” What is needed is the re-emergence of vibrant social movements—and not the mistaken channeling of popular anger into right-wing populism—as sites of collective agency to transform the economic and political landscape.