As usual, we know less about the victim than his killer. This is about all I could find out the other day about Vernon Hunter: He was 67, a Vietnam veteran, the father of six and the husband of a fellow IRS agent who reportedly was just steps away from him Thursday morning when Joseph Stack flew his plane into their Austin, Texas, office building.
Stack has emerged in a decidedly fuller picture, from his own words in the diatribe he left behind online, and from those who knew the software engineer and musician - if not about his decades-long grudge against the government in general and the IRS specifically.
Still, much will remain unknown and buried with him. I wonder, for example, if Stack saw Hunter as he plowed his plane into the building. At the last moment, did it even occur to him that he wasn't killing "the government" but another human being?
Maybe the anti-government anger that Stack carried for much of his life left no room for such subtleties, and whether it continued to blind him in death of course makes no difference at this point. Maybe he was another Timothy McVeigh, whose fury at the government culminated in the bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people, including children in a day care center whom he later would call "collateral damage."
Rage has become so much a part of the political landscape, it no longer registers to a lot of the rest of us - the sheeple, I think, is the current term for those who aren't enraged enough to scream at their congressional representatives at town hall meetings, or attend rallies dressed up like the revolutionary Founding Fathers that the Tea Partiers imagine themselves to be.
And then a Joseph Stack comes along.
No, there's no evidence that he was a part of any Tea Party group, and before those activists get even more livid, let me get this out of the way right now: I don't think they're to blame for Thursday's violence. There was one person in that cockpit and that was Stack, truly the lone pilot in this crime.
His was an entirely specific beef, or at least it started out that way: From his not entirely coherent rant, Stack seems to have tried getting the same tax exemption that churches receive. The failed effort, he said, cost him $40,000 and 10 years of his life. He also had issues with a tax rule that makes it hard for computer engineers to be considered independent contractors - a legitimate concern, according to some, although of course it's no justification for his action.
And yet, for all the specificity of his problems with the IRS, the manifesto he posted on his Web site is much in keeping with the current clamor of our times. His call to "wake up and revolt." The sense of not being heard, despite writing "any senator, congressman, governor, or slug that might listen." His railing against a government that "bailed out their rich, incompetent cronies WITH MY MONEY!"
Except that he took his talk to its most violent extreme, none of this is much different from what you hear or see on any given day. There's an entire anger industry that fuels this kind of fury - talk radio, cable TV, Internet blogs, where people talk either literally or virtually in ALL CAPS. No discussion about the government - whether it's health care reform, the deficit or, of course, the perennial hot button of taxes - can take the form of a simple disagreement. It has to be a call to arms, a rush to one corner or the other, a fight to the death.
So maybe this anger rarely turns into physical action. (Although, as The Washington Post reported Friday, threats and assaults against IRS personnel are more common than you might imagine: The feds investigated more than 1,200 such cases over a recent seven-year span, resulting in nearly 200 convictions.)
In Stack's case, or at least in his writings, he was the victim at the hands of an all-powerful government. I obviously don't know, but it's hard to believe that all the woes he writes about, from running through his retirement savings to not being able to find work at decent wages, can be laid solely at the feet of the government.
And this, I think, is why much of today's anger seems so misdirected, or at the very least counterproductive. The notion of government being broken and unable to fix anything leads absolutely nowhere: You get people like Sarah Palin or Evan Bayh showily quitting the government, all the while decrying its ills, even though they, more than the average citizen, were in a position to do something about fixing them.
Meanwhile, the anti-government rage, well, rages on - almost festively, actually, with people seemingly enjoying the venting, the rude signs and slogans, the childish name-calling. Someday, maybe it will be channeled into something constructive, but for now, it seems the anger is the whole point.