This afternoon, Joseph Stack flew a small plane into the Austin, Texas office of the IRS. As a suicide note, Joe Stack left a rambling, 3,000 word letter that described his decades-long battle with the IRS, his hatred and distrust of the government,. his apparent embrace of communism, and his refusal to continue on as a cog in the machine. Having reached the end of his rope, Joe Stack decided to both enact his revenge on the IRS and send a message to the people. Now we're stll not sure exactly what the message was. Its a bit hard to peg down. But we are all incredibly familiar with the method that Joe Stack chose to employ in delivering his message. Joe Stack chose to fly an airplane into a building. And people who fly airplanes into buildings are terrorists.
Shortly after Joe Stack flew his plane into the Austin office of the IRS, the powers that be announced he was not a terrorist, and that his action was not an act of terrorism. To put it simply, we often understand terrorism as political violence. Violence intended to send some sort of political message. Now most reasonable people would agree that a man who flys a plane into a building full of people probably intends on hurting or killing at least some of those people. And most of us would further agree that attempting to hurt and kill people with physical violence is, well, a violent thing. So it follows that Joe Stack did a violent thing today. And he did a violent thing - a terribly violent thing - to signify his hatred of the IRS and his outrage at the government. And most people would agree that being outraged at the government is a political position. So it follows that Joe Stack did a terribly violent thing in furtherance of his political agenda. Joe Stack engaged in political violence, or violence intended to send a political message. And violence intended to send a political message is terrorism. So Joe Stack is a terrorist.
The problem with suggesting otherwise, with labeling Joe Stack as something other than a terrorist - something like "just a terribly disgruntled taxpayer" - is the work that language does. No doubt, some folks will laugh at that, but that's really what we're facing here: language doing work. Whether we go with Focault or Led Zepplin, its the same idea: You know sometimes words have meanings. And here, there is a real danger in putting Joe Stack in the "non-terrorist" category.
Certainly, I understand the government's desire to avoid labeling Joe Stark a terrorist. Yes, I understand that calling today's events terrorism might scare some people up; might confuse some people; might be politically inexpedient (que Dick Cheney comments re this being Obama's fault). But these are minor inconveniences, compared to the flip side.
By labeling Joe Stack as a "not-terrorist", we find ourselves drawing a distinction that is non-sensical, indefensible, and dangerous. If Joe Stack is not a terrorist, it follows that flying planes into crowded buildings is sometimes terrorism but sometimes not. How do we decide? Does the lable of terrorism or terrorist hinge on the nature of the underlying political ideology? When a Muslim suicide bomber flys a plane into a building purportedly in the name of Allah, that is terrorism. When the anti-imperalist, pro-proliteriate Weathermen bomb government buildings, that is terrorism. But when Joe Stack flys a plane into a government bulding in the name of hatred for the IRS and distrust of the government.... it is somehow not terrorism.
In our lexicon of evil, we reserve "terrorism" for the most hideous of acts. There are criminals... and then there are terrorists. And terrorists are the worst of the worst. Assigning the label of terrorist to some individuals who engage in political violence but excluding Joe Stack from that category effectively signals that Joe Stack is not that bad. And somewhere out there in America, there is some self-proclaimed Tea Party patriot watching the news, and thinking to himself, "They're not calling Joe Stack a terrorist. Because Joe Stack wasn't evil like a terrorist. He wasn't nearly as bad as a terrorist. He just hated the government. He was just a disgruntled tax payer, like me."
To me, that's a problem.