What We Are Talking About When We Say Certain Words, Part III

So, was Joe Stack a leftie or a rightie? And was he a terrorist?

Michael Tomasky at The Guardian:

Stack was in fact angry at everyone. Angry at the IRS. Angry at the government generally. Angry at unions. But also angry at corporate greed and at rich people and at “thugs and plunderers” of various stripe.

With one breath, he denounced the government’s heavy hand:

How can any rational individual explain that white elephant conundrum in the middle of our tax system and, indeed, our entire legal system? Here we have a system that is, by far, too complicated for the brightest of the master scholars to understand. Yet, it mercilessly “holds accountable” its victims, claiming that they’re responsible for fully complying with laws not even the experts understand.

But with another, he attacked the corporate greed that made (so far at least) healthcare reform impossible:

Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering 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. Yet, the political “representatives” (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the “terrible health care problem”. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in.

The guy obviously had some serious issues. But in its way Stack’s is an oddly compelling document. There’s something slightly touching about this:

Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless… especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head.

My feelings would be very different, of course, if he’d killed people. Tonight, tomorrow morning, we’ll find out perhaps whether he intended to but failed at that, too, as he had evidently failed at so many things in life, or whether he intentionally did this in such a way that the only life taken would be his own.

Clearly, he intended this act to spark political action on the part of others:

But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.

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; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.

Does that make him a terrorist? It’s an interesting question. Was he trying to create terror among the citizenry? We don’t know yet. But we do know that he can’t be blamed squarely on either right or left.

Allah Pundit:

The irony of all this is that violent IRS-hating cranks have been around for decades, long before tea parties were a twinkle in Rick Santelli’s eye. The NYT, to its credit, puts today’s attack in context by highlighting a few examples from over the years — while also taking care to note that a firebomb set in 1990 came packed with a tea bag. (Wink wink.) And a bonus irony: Taxes have actually been a surprisingly minor issue for tea partiers thus far, due in part to the fact that Obama and the Dems haven’t made any aggressive moves on that front yet. The tea party, in my experience, has focused much more heavily on cutting spending, ending bailouts, and auditing the Fed than dismantling the IRS, let alone flying planes into it.

Naked Capitalism:

Note that he sees his violent response to his economic plight as a political act, a blow for freedom. I am certainly not advocating this course of action. But others start connecting at least some of the dots this way, seeing their financial stresses not as the result of bad luck or lack of sufficient effort, but as an indictment of the system. Given the breakdown of communities (for instance, the fall in involvement in local civic groups and shortened job tenures, both of which lead to weaker social ties and greater isolation), the odds that the disaffected will turn to violence is greater than in past periods of stress.

Andrew Sullivan:

But I want to make a few simple points: this was obviously an act of terrorism. When someone is mad at the government, and when he flies a plane into a federal building, killing two and traumatizing countless others and urges others to do the same, he is a terrorist.

Secondly, it is pernicious to define terrorism by the race or religion of its perpetrators. In the country I grew up in, London and the town where my sister’s family now lives, Guildford, endured brutal IRA bombings. These acts of terror were no less terror than Jihadist terror or far right domestic terrorism, such as Timothy McVeigh’s. Ordinary people were drinking a beer in a pub or shopping in a department store and blown to bits.

None approached the numbers killed in the mass murder of 9/11 in one incident, but over the years of terror, very large numbers of innocents were killed. What I find deeply alarming is that race is now beginning to define an act of terrorism in America. Fox News described the Fort Hood shootings as an act of terrorism, but did not describe the assassination of Dr George Tiller as an act of terrorism.

Both were politically motivated, and designed to foment terror, and both were influenced by extremist forms of religious teaching. Is terrorism defined by the number of people it kills? Or the race of the perpetrators? Or the religion of the terrorists? The Dish tries hard not to make such distinctions.

Terrorism is terrorism whoever does it. Torture is torture whoever does it. Murder is murder whoever does it. Just as I oppose affirmative action and hate crime laws, which make specious distinction on the basis of race and other characteristics, so I oppose making any distinction on those grounds when describing terrorism. That, I think, is a conservative position. And Fox News is not a conservative news organization. It is, in many ways, a racist and xenophobic one whose double standards are a result of pure prejudice not reason.

Glenn Greenwald:

Despite all that, The New York Times‘ Brian Stelter documents the deep reluctance of cable news chatterers and government officials to label the incident an act of “terrorism,” even though — as Dave Neiwert ably documents — it perfectly fits, indeed is a classic illustration of, every official definition of that term.  The issue isn’t whether Stack’s grievances are real or his responses just; it is that the act unquestionably comports with the official definition.  But as NBC’s Pete Williams said of the official insistence that this was not an act of Terrorism:  there are “a couple of reasons to say that . . . One is he’s an American citizen.”  Fox News’ Megan Kelley asked Catherine Herridge about these denials:  “I take it that they mean terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to?,” to which Herridge replied: “they mean terrorism in that capital T way.”

All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.  The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.  It has really come to mean:  “a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.”  That’s why all of this confusion and doubt arose yesterday over whether a person who perpetrated a classic act of Terrorism should, in fact, be called a Terrorist:  he’s not a Muslim and isn’t acting on behalf of standard Muslim grievances against the U.S. or Israel, and thus does not fit the “definition.”  One might concede that perhaps there’s some technical sense in which term might apply to Stack, but as Fox News emphasized:  it’s not “terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to . . . terrorism in that capital T way.”  We all know who commits terrorism in “that capital T way,” and it’s not people named Joseph Stack.

Contrast the collective hesitance to call Stack a Terrorist with the extremely dubious circumstances under which that term is reflexively applied to Muslims.  If a Muslim attacks a military base preparing to deploy soldiers to a war zone, that person is a Terrorist.  If an American Muslim argues that violence against the U.S. (particularly when aimed at military targets) is justified due to American violence aimed at the Muslim world, that person is a Terrorist who deserves assassination.  And if the U.S. military invades a Muslim country, Muslims who live in the invaded and occupied country and who fight back against the invading American army — by attacking nothing but military targets — are also Terrorists.  Indeed, large numbers of detainees at Guantanamo were accused of being Terrorists for nothing more than attacking members of an invading foreign army in their country, including 14-year-old Mohamed Jawad, who spent many years in Guantanamo, accused (almost certainly falsely) of throwing a grenade at two American troops in Afghanistan who were part of an invading force in that country.  Obviously, plots targeting civilians for death — the 9/11 attacks and attempts to blow up civilian aircraft — are pure terrorism, but a huge portion of the acts committed by Muslims that receive that label are not.

In sum:  a Muslim who attacks military targets, including in war zones or even 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 with no charges and assassinated with no due process.  Nor are Christians who stand outside abortion clinics and murder doctors and clinic workers.  Nor are acts undertaken by us or our favored allies designed to kill large numbers of civilians or which will recklessly cause such deaths as a means of terrorizing the population into desired behavioral change — the Glorious Shock and Awe campaign and the pummeling of Gaza.  Except as a means for demonizing Muslims, the word is used so inconsistently and manipulatively that it is impoverished of any discernible meaning.

Matthew Yglesias:

But instead of complaining about the hypocrisy involved in not trying to whip people into a fit of terror and madness about this incident, I think it makes more sense to congratulate everyone on handling this in a calm and sensible manner. The key point, that all authorities seem to agree on, is that while this is a serious crime and a genuinely Bad Thing To Have Happen, that you need to put the likelihood of this sort of incident into a broader context. Simply put, the odds of “death by disgruntled anti-tax activist flying an airplane into your office” are extremely small and it’s extremely difficult to think of cost-effective and efficacious methods of ensuring that this never happens again. Off the top of my head, this looks to me like a demonstration of the desirability of better mental health services in the United States, but that’s something that I would think was true one way or the other.

Stack’s stated purpose for undertaking the attack was to try to prompt a counterproductive overreaction: “I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.” It’s smart, then, that as a country we’re responding to his terrorism by trying to avoid counterproductive overreactions. But of course this is also Osama bin Laden’s goal and it’s also appropriate to respond to Islamist political violence in a similar spirit. We shouldn’t be indifferent to the risk of death by Islamist terrorism any more than we should be indifferent to America’s unusually high rate of non-political homicides or to America’s alarmingly high infant mortality rate or its large number of deaths in car crashes. But it’s important to try to think about all these problems in a rational spirit, and adopt reasonable policy responses.

David Neiwert at Crooks and Liars:

Now, it’s true that Homeland Security officials originally released this statement:

“We believe there’s no nexus with criminal or terrorist activity”

They later amended this to just say “terrorist activity.” Fox’s Catherine Herridge also reported that Homeland Security officials had briefed President Obama on the incident, and that he had been told “this was not an act of terrorism.”

So how did Fox’s anchors interpret all this?

Greg Jarrett:

And the president was told this was not an act of terrorism. We have not received word, though, as to whether the F-16s are still airborne, just in case, until the Department of Homeland Security and the military is absolutely satisfied that this is the act of a single individual who used a dangerous instrumentality, to be sure, a plane, as a weapon.

And it is akin, I suppose, Megan, to, you know, somebody who gets angry at a workplace, and takes a gun, or a knife, and goes in and begins to attack people. This is unusual because instead of a gun or an automobile, it was indeed an airplane. But it has happened before.

Megyn Kelly:

Our Homeland Security contacts telling us, this does not appear to be terrorism in any way that that word is conventionally understood. We understand from officials that this is a sole, isolated act.

Well, this is true only if the conventional understanding of the word “terrorism” has now been narrowed down to mean only international terrorism and to preclude domestic terrorism altogether.

Since when, after all, is attempting to blow up a federal office as a protest against federal policies NOT an act of domestic terrorism?

You know, Timothy McVeigh used a “dangerous instrument” to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City. He too was angry at the federal government, and was converted to the belief that acts of violence was the only means possible to prevent the government from overwhelming our freedom and replacing it with tyranny. He also believed that his act of exemplary violence would inspire others to take up similar acts to stave off the threat of tyranny.

James Joyner:

That’s all true.  But that still doesn’t make every act of violence committed by someone angry at the government “terrorism.”  Who, exactly, was Stack trying to terrorize? What did he think he was going to accomplish?

McVeigh was a terrorist, without question, even though his act of mass murder had no significant chance of achieving his political aims.  Ditto, for that matter, the 9/11 attacks; just because al Qaeda’s goals are absurd doesn’t mean they’re not systematically trying to achieve them with violence.   But both plots created significant public terror and were at least highly organized toward achieving aims.   As best we call tell from early evidence, Stack was just mad as hell and hoping to draw attention to his “manifesto.”

John Hinderaker at Powerline:

I don’t have an opinion on whether Stack’s suicide crash was an act of terrorism, but I’m pretty sure it was an act of lunacy. That conviction is reinforced by reading Stack’s online apologia. For what it’s worth, that document is left wing, not right wing. But it’s hardly worth parsing the political views of the terminally disturbed. Actually, were the situation not tragic, it would be entertaining to try to piece together the facts of Stack’s run-ins with the law, based on his cryptic and unreliable, but sometimes revealing, account–sort of like reading Pale Fire.

Robert Wright and Ann Althouse at Bloggingheads

UPDATE: Robert Wright at NYT

Matt Steinglass

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink, here and here

Newsweek raps about the subject here. Greenwald responds to Newsweek here.

UPDATE #2: Ta-Nehisi Coates

UPDATE #3: Ben Adler at Newsweek responds to Greenwald

Devin Gordon e-mails Sully

UPDATE #4: Kathy Jones responds to Greenwald

E-mails between Greenwald and Gordon




Filed under Crime, Go Meta

2 responses to “What We Are Talking About When We Say Certain Words, Part III

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