Celebrating Our Middle American Joe-Average Terrorist…Updated Below…And Updated Again

Posted on February 20, 2010

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It’s difficult to believe the deference being given to Joseph Stack after he attacked an IRS building and [luckily, only] killed one person, injuring twelve others–two critically. No reasonable person, nor any person wishing to be thought of as reasonable, would defend Stack’s act, at least not publicly, of course. And I’m not speaking only of the media’s odd hesitation to label Stack’s act terrorism, and he, as a result, a terrorist. That has, by now, been amply and capably addressed by some great minds, including Glenn Greenwald. Although I do have to note that some of the acrobatic permutations to avoid calling Stack a terrorist, or even a murderer, have been almost amusing. The Wall Street Journal broke its story with this headline: “Tax Protester Crashes Plane into IRS Building” , he was called the “plane crash” pilot by MSNBC. My favorite neologism, hands down, however, was “spectacle murder” which was used in a CBS online article.

What I’ve found more disturbing is the current trend of investigating the legitimacy of Stack’s grievance. I’m not surprised to see some Republicans try it. Here’s Republican Texas gubernatorial candidate, Debbie Medina saying that Stack:

…reflects “the hopelessness many in our society feel….there is a sense in all of our country that we are not on the right path…I grieve for him [Stack]. I’m very sympathetic for his family, for the families of those innocent victims in that building.

A similarly odd exclamation of sympathy was made shortly after the murder spree of James W. Von Braun by Congressman Mike Rogers on Hardball. I wrote about that here, and you can watch the video here.

The New York Times got into the sympathetic divination act, with this analysis of one of Stack’s beefs, a law passed in the late nineties that Stack mentioned in his pre-murdering treatise. [it should also be noted that Stack puts no small amount of blame on his accountant, who “knew” and apparently, according to Stack, intentionally made an error in filing his joint tax return]:

The law, known as Section 1706 of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, made it extremely difficult for information technology professionals to work as self-employed individuals, forcing most to become company employees. Many software engineers and other such professionals say that the law denies them the opportunity to become wealthy entrepreneurs and that it makes it harder to increase and refine their skills, eventually diminishing their income…“This law has ruined many people’s lives, hurt the technology industry, and discouraged the creation of small, independent businesses critical to a thriving domestic economy,” Mr. Shulman said in an interview Thursday. “That the law still exists — even after its original sponsors called for its repeal and unbiased studies proved it unfairly targeted a tax-compliant industry — shows just how dysfunctional and unresponsive Democratic and Republican Congresses and our political system have been, even on relatively simple issues.”

Indeed. An unjust law that targets people who wish to become wealthy! Why, I’m sure we have time to look into that unjust law.

I understand that some writers and bloggers have shown interest in Stack’s motives in order to draw attention to on-going issues of economic injustice, whether TARP related or of older vintage. Ok, make your platform in the public screen and state your case; I get it. But what becomes problematic about this discomfiting interest in the motives of a mass murderer is how disinterested these same venues and writers have been when similar events with different demographic actors have occurred. The case of Johnny Lee Wicks is especially relevant, in that it occurred only a bare month ago. Wicks, was close to Stack’s age and had an on-going years-long beef with the federal government; he also torched his home, before meeting his destiny at the Las Vegas Federal Building, killing two guards before being killed himself. Wicks’ beef with social security involved the reduction of his monthly social security benefit by nearly four hundred dollars–on an average SSI check, that is a huge number.Although Wicks contended that institutional racism was at the heart of his problem, his hand-written lawsuit was dismissed. The judges that had dismissed Wicks’ lawsuit had offices in the building. I’ve found no article or any A-list blogger interested in investigating the merits of Wicks’ claims, though they’re quite probably not unlike those of Stack. Perhaps some are seemingly legitimate–that is, injustices that many others face in silence–while others are simply bitter outwardly turned warped grievances.

There was another high level murder spree just a year ago which should have, given the bar set by Stack’s act, ignited similar discourse about intent. Lovelle Mixon, a black ex-convict who killed four police officers in a seemingly unprovoked surprise killing spree. Mixon was a parolee, who had spent six years in jail for armed robbery only to be sent back to prison for an unspecified parole violation. Mixon was apparently having extreme difficulties with his parole officer, to the extent that he had confided in his grandmother that, “he was even willing to go back to prison to be assigned a new parole officer.” Mixon had been working as a janitor in a housing project and had been married to a teen sweetheart while in prison. Again, not much interest in the blogosphere here; of course, we’re only talking about the act of someone trapped in a well-documented prison-for profit parole system.

I suppose one could argue that one big difference is that Mixon and Wicks were ex-felons. But as opposed to? Stack was quite obviously, by the same token, a recidivist white-collar criminal and tax cheat. Had his luck served him better, he would have killed and hurt far more people than Mixon and Wicks could ever hope to.

It’s disturbing that, given this reality, it’s so easy for some to quite soberly delve into the mind of this would-be mass killer. I assume that the same people reacted with revulsion to the stories of Wicks and Mixon–and indeed, dozens of other cop-killers with politically relevant motives. If that’s not the reason why the blogosphere and the punditocracy failed to react with such curiosity, then I’d like to know what is. Is it, as one particularly dumb troll, pointed out to me today in an online forum:

There is an opportunity here to rally people behind the example of a person who has rebelled, for good reasons, against the powers that be. His violent example need not be followed but it can be used to demonstrate how “average Americans” people are heading that direction.

Could it be that these other murderers were not average enough? I hope my readers are smart enough to understand what average means here. Certainly, a plane-owning engineer seeking to establish his own business while carrying out a long war with the IRS is strains the established concept of average. I suppose something else is meant by that word in this context.

Update: On a not completely unrelated note, the New York Times article referenced above got this wrong:

On Wednesday, the day before Andrew Joseph Stack III left his suicide note and crashed the plane into the building in Austin, the Obama administration proposed a widespread crackdown on all types of independent contractors in an effort to raise $7 billion in tax revenue over 10 years.

According to the NYT’s own reporting, the crackdown is aimed at employers trying to pass off employees as independent contractors in order to escape tax and other payment burdens. The NYT article on Stack seems almost purposefully designed to mislead in order to make for a more interesting story. Here’s an excerpt from the original NYT article about the Obama admin’s new policy:

Many workplace experts say a growing number of companies have maneuvered to cut costs by wrongly classifying regular employees as independent contractors, though they often are given desks, phone lines and assignments just like regular employees. Moreover, the experts say, workers have become more reluctant to challenge such practices, given the tough job market.

Companies that pass off employees as independent contractors avoid paying Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance taxes for those workers. Companies do not withhold income taxes from contractors’ paychecks, and several studies have indicated that, on average, misclassified independent workers do not report 30 percent of their income.

Update 2: I wanted to make one more point about the relative worth of victims, and how it seems to have something to do with the murderer. In the examples of Mixon and Wicks, the victims were lionized, especially in the case of Mixon, where  a gigantic memorial ceremony for the slain officers was held in the Oakland Coliseum. Apparently, the amount of reverence we show the slain has as much to do with who killed them, as it does for who they were.