A double standard in what we define as 'terrorism'

February 23, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

Last week, a man named Joseph Stack set his Texas home on fire, stole a single-engine plane and intentionally crashed it midday into Austin's Echelon Building, where the local Internal Revenue Service offices are located.

Mr. Stack left behind a lengthy suicide note complaining about the U.S. government, and particularly the IRS. His strongly populist letter directed anger at the powerful and wealthy often echoed by liberals. But Mr. Stack's letter was mostly full of conservative rage against the "tyranny" of government taxation. Was this man a terrorist or a patriot? A cowardly murderer or a courageous martyr?

Calling Mr. Stack a hero, conservative talk radio host Jon Alvarez of Syracuse's WFBM created a Facebook page the same day to memorialize Mr. Stack's actions. Although Facebook managers later took down the link, I perused the page before it was removed. Many commenters lionized Mr. Stack; one person compared his patriotism to that of George Washington.

Come again? In less than a decade, the act of flying a plane into a building full of innocent civilians has been transformed from the most dastardly terrorist attack ever perpetrated against America to an act of heroism?

Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act, passed by a conservative Congress and signed by a conservative president in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, specifically expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic actions that meet one or more of three criteria. Terrorists are those who perpetrate violent acts with the intent to either "intimidate or coerce a civilian population," "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" and/or "affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping."

Given what he did, when and where -- not to mention the detailed suicide note in which he concluded that "violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer" -- Mr. Stack's act meets all three. And yet the Department of Homeland Security immediately rushed to assure the public that Mr. Stack's act did not constitute a terrorist act.

There seems to be a double standard here.

Mr. Stack's actions can't be disqualified because he is an American citizen rather than a foreigner. If that were true, the Federal Bureau of Investigation couldn't classify arson activities by groups like Animal Liberation Front and anti-sprawl property destruction by groups like Earth Liberation Front that killed nobody as terrorism. But they do.

Nor can you disqualify Mr. Stark because he acted alone. Last year's shootings by Major Malik Nadal Hassan at Fort Hood were quickly labeled terrorism by the likes of Glenn Beck, who curiously made no mention of Mr. Stack during his keynote address this past Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Committee national convention in Washington.

Those who compare Mr. Stack to George Washington misunderstand a fundamental point: Revolution initiated by colonial subjects against an oppressing government cannot be equated with persons who enjoy full citizenship, including representation and voting rights, resorting to violence.

The act of cowardice committed by Mr. Stack also reinforces the quickly forgotten lessons of a nearer past, courtesy of those who fought and continue to fight peacefully for civil rights here at home. Although there were violent moments during the Civil Rights era, the moral force of that revolution was its general embrace of nonviolence to highlight the internal contradictions between the principles and practices of our Constitution.

Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King were demonized as Communists and traitors then. A half-century later, an angry crank who flies a plane into an IRS building is hailed by some as a patriot.

As the tea party movement demonstrates, calling government officials tyrants is becoming common discourse. And discourse is fine. But actions are different, and terrorist activity, whatever its underlying ideological motives, should be called its rightful name. Where are all those "political correctness" police when you need them?

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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