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Feb. 21 2010 - 8:26 am | 464 views | 2 recommendations | 8 comments

Joseph Stack was technically a terrorist, but…

I hate to disagree with Kevin Drum, but I think his demurral at the use of the term “terrorist” for Joseph Stack is wrong. On the other hand, I think it’s also true that we wouldn’t normally call Stack a terrorist in quite the same way that we would use the term for the 9/11 Al-Qaeda teams, or (to keep things ideologically balanced) for the Stern Gang team that blew up the King David Hotel.

Drum points to Dave Neiwert’s citation of the FBI definition of terrorism:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve (1) acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; (2) appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (3) to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (4) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. [18 U.S.C. ยง 2331(5)]

He demurs on two points. On 2), he says that Stack’s suicide note didn’t make it entirely clear whether he wanted to intimidate civilians, because he may only have wanted to kill himself to make his statement. I don’t really understand this objection. First, IRS staffers are “civilians”; the FBI definition is clearly just trying to say that an attack isn’t clearly terrorist if it targets military personnel. But clearly we would consider an attack on, say, Congress to be a terrorist attack, not a legitimate military action. In any case, Stack’s message (“Nothing changes unless there is a body count…I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt”) make it clear that he was trying to inspire massive violence against the IRS. If he had set himself on fire in the middle of the street, that’d be one thing, but he flew a plane into a building during working hours. I mean, c’mon.

Second, Kevin objects on 3) because:

Stack doesn’t really have a policy he wants changed. He’s mad at the government, he’s mad at paying unfair taxes, and he’s mad at the turns his life has taken…”Jews out of Palestine” is a policy grievance. Ditto for “abortion is murder,” “freedom for Tamil,” and “Jim Crow forever.” But all Stack has is a vague and inchoate rage.

I think if you consider this a disqualifying objection, you would have a hard time indicting the 9/11 hijackers for terrorism. It has never been clear what their precise goals or demands were. That the US withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia? That Israel withdraw from the West Bank, or cease to exist? That the Caliphate be reestablished? Like Stack’s, the motives of Al-Qaeda terrorists are a baffling swirl of resentments and half-formed, incoherent demands. The actual, rational objectives of those who organize such terrorist attacks are strategic or tactical: Al-Qaeda may have aimed to provoke the US into a military intervention in Afghanistan, which it thought it could use to bleed its enemy; Hamas often aims to torpedo peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and so forth. But these aren’t generally the motivations of those who actually carry out the attacks.

So I think that on definitional grounds, you have to grant that Stack’s suicidal plane attack on the IRS was an act of terrorism. But at the same time, we don’t put it in the same league as attacks by trained agents of Al-Qaeda or the Stern Gang, because it’s not part of an organized campaign of violent intimidation that furthers the aims of a political organization. The Oklahoma City bombing, with its clear links to the militia movement and its explicit (if crazy) ideology, was more like the terrorism we see from Al-Qaeda or the Qassam Brigades. Stack’s act was more like what the Unabomber was up to: the lone act of a disturbed man with no coherent vision of how his desired political change could come about. But, again, we’d all call the Unabomber a terrorist.


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  1. collapse expand

    RE:Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve (1) acts dangerous to human life that

    Hey…you just described obamacare

  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Steinglass,

    The only difference between al Qaeda and Mr. Stack was training, planning, and ambition. They aimed at a bigger target and spent more time preparing, but that is all. It is a difference of degree, not kind.

  3. collapse expand

    While eating dinner tonight my friend said: “Her boyfriend is Persian, big beard, dark skin, he looks kinda like a terrorist ya know?” My friend didn’t use the word incorrectly. The word terrorist as used in common conversation carries racial appearance implications. When I say “Joseph Stack didn’t look like a terrorist”, I am not using the word incorrectly. But is it wrong that the word carries such racial implications?

    I think it is wrong that the word terrorist has racial implications. Joseph Stack presents himself as the perfect case of the light skinned terrorist. He performed essentially the same attack as the 9/11 guys, ramming a plane into a building with intent to kill those inside the building to make a political statement. Joseph Stack and his fellow anti big government terrorists should be regarded as terrorist just the same as the dark skinned, heavily bearded looking terrorists because he did the same act, despite his light skin.

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    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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