Was Joseph Stack a terrorist?

Since Joseph Stack flew an airplane into the Austin headquarters of the IRS one of the main questions being asked about the incident is whether or not this should be considered an act of terrorism and Stack himself a terrorist. Many Arab and Muslim Americans, and their allies, have made the point that had Stack been of Arab or Muslim descent, there likely would not be much reticence to apply that label to him, but given his ethnicity there seems to be a much greater reluctance in many quarters to place him in that category. This is not, of course, merely a semantic argument. Especially for Arab and Muslim Americans, the question of the process by, and criteria for, which the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” are applied to acts of violence in United States is laden with political and social significance.

Arab and Muslim Americans are concerned that all violent acts committed by individuals associated with their communities lead to unfair stigmatization because they are seen as reflective of a “threat” inherent in those communities. Even if it is understood that extremist sentiments reflect a minority, indeed a fringe, sentiment among Muslims worldwide, let alone in the United States, it is still very hard for many Americans not to assign some degree of collective blame or threat to Arabs and Muslims generally when such violent acts are committed. Majority communities, obviously, are by definition immune from this kind of stigmatization and since the white, male, Christian identity is a normative one in American society any distortions of personality or behavior are ascribed strictly to the individual and not the group. Many minorities are vulnerable to this kind of collective blame, as African-Americans and many others have been throughout American history. However, there is a particular stigma that attaches to the terms terrorist and terrorism, understood as an existential threat to our society, so the communities that have to bear this collective stigma are particularly hard hit.

The fear, of course, and a perfectly valid and natural one at that, is that the terms terrorist and terrorism have become ethnically defined, reserved largely for and casually applied to Arabs and Muslims, and only rarely applied to others, especially Christian, European Americans. Certainly in Israel, whose opinion makers, including the current prime minister, have had a huge impact on the way American society views the question of terrorism, this transformation of the terms terrorist and terrorism into simple ethnic pejoratives is well-established. Virtually any Palestinian who commits an act of violence against a Jewish Israeli, under almost any circumstances, is automatically labeled a “terrorist” by most of Israeli society, whereas the application of this term to Jews is generally reserved for only the most extreme and unavoidable cases, such as Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers at a mosque in Hebron in 1994. The disparity is striking and indefensible. It reflects a simplistic ethnic bias and eliminates any real hope for moral or political clarity. It is extremely troubling that the process by which terrorist and terrorism are virtually synonymous with Arab and Muslim, and only rarely and in extreme cases applied to others, is increasingly reflected in American discourse.

The generalized response of Arab and Muslim American organizations and commentators that have expressed an opinion in this instance has been to insist that Mr. Stack was indeed a terrorist, and that any reticence to label him as such is a reflection of double standards and ethnic bias. Fair enough. The very legitimate question is posed: if his name were Abdullah instead of Stack, would there be any doubt how his action would be perceived by both the society at large and the government? This is an important and reasonable question, but I’m not sure the answer is absolutely as obvious as people tend to think. In the case of the Fort Hood murderer, Maj. Hasan, there was in fact some reticence on the part of the government and some of the media to apply this label to him at first. In fact, there was a similar, although much less developed, conversation to the one we are having now about Stack about whether Hasan should be viewed primarily as a lone psycho or as a representative of a political movement. Of course there was a far greater ease and frequency with which the word terrorist was applied to Hasan and a striking reticence among many political and media figures to identify Stack in this manner. Therefore, the knee-jerk response has been to insist that Stack was as much a terrorist as Hasan, and that both should be considered and publicly labeled as such.

I’m not sure this is the wisest course of action. For purposes of combating discrimination and ensuring equity, two scenarios would serve the Arab and Muslim American objective: either all politically or socially (even in part) motivated acts of violence are to be considered “terrorism,” as in the FBI’s rather elastic definition, or we are going to reserve the term for the actions of organized conspiracies reflecting both political and operational leadership and individuals assigned to carry out the crime. But that doesn’t mean both are equally desirable objectives or that it is irrelevant which corrective to ethnic bias is accomplished.

Both Stack and Hasan seem to have been individuals with considerable emotional difficulties inflected through paranoid and extremist worldviews. Hassan was plainly influenced by “salafist-jihadist” rhetoric of the Al Qaeda variety, although he apparently had no connections to any extremist organization. That he was also mentally and emotionally unbalanced has also become very clear. In the case of Stack, his death-manifesto reflects the wave of popular outrage against the government, especially the IRS, and Wall Street, in this case mixed with strong denunciations of the Catholic Church. He was reportedly a member of the Austin “tea party” movement, although his statement incorporates both familiar tea bagger rhetoric and ultra-left sentiments. There is every indication that he too was mentally and emotionally unbalanced. Both men, then, allowed their mental and emotional difficulties to be refracted through extreme political sentiments resulting in violent actions reflecting both. It’s impossible to decide which element was determinative, and, in fact, I think impossible to really tease the two apart either, although most people with extreme sentiments don’t engage in spontaneous violence. This is the familiar pattern of the outraged lone wolf killer with social or political grievances, the psychological dynamic behind the old expression “going postal,” or that immortal euphemism, “disgruntled former employee.”

Does it make sense, however, to lump these kinds of actions into the same category as carefully planned, ideologically-motivated conspiracies by organizations, no matter how small, to carry out acts of violence and sabotage in order to pursue a broader strategy, no matter how implausible? I doubt it. It seems to me that in order to deal with both problems effectively, distinguishing between the two is essential, since while they appear to share similar characteristics because the nature of the acts seems identical and the rhetoric similarly coincidental, in fact they are produced by very different dynamics and processes. What I’m arguing is that when two different equations produce similar results it does not make sense to deal with them as if they were reflective of the same essential problem. Of course fundamental security measures that would deter or prevent any act of violence, no matter the source or motivation, are essential in combating both of these phenomena and violence by organized criminals, gangs and others. But if we are serious about dealing with the problem of political terrorism it strongly behooves us not to confuse strategic actions by ideologically motivated organizations with the intersection of emotional crisis and political extremism that seems to produce these lone wolf atrocities.

What I’m suggesting is that a case like the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained and equipped by organized Al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, reflects a fundamentally different problem than the cases of Stack or Hasan. And I’m further arguing that our society has been prone to making the mistake, especially in the cases of Arabs and Muslims, of conflating lone wolf murders with operatives of terrorist political organizations. And finally, I’m arguing that Arab and Muslim Americans should think very carefully before, in their essential and urgent quest for fairness and clarity, seeking to expand the application of this term as in the FBI’s working definition to include almost any act of violence with any political or social context whatsoever, rather than to restrict the use of the term to reflect the actions of organized conspiracies with clear political motivations and strategic aims.

It wasn’t helpful when many voices and forces in our society rushed to apply the term terrorist to Maj. Hasan after the Fort Hood massacre as it mystified the complex witches’ brew of stresses and influences in his life that drove him to this monstrous deed. It’s an oversimplification and a reductive dodge that serves a number of obvious ideological purposes, including the promotion of generalized fear and hatred of Arabs and Muslims, and is a grave detriment to clear thinking and policies. And, similarly, I don’t think it’s helpful now to try to see Mr. Stack in the same light. It’s true that Hasan was influenced by Al Qaeda’s rhetoric, and Stack seems to have been influenced by tea party and other anti-establishment sentiments as well — his gesture of flying that plane into a federal building had much more of the Turner Diaries about it than any 9/11 redux. But I don’t think it’s reasonable or helpful to see them as expressions or logical conclusions of generalized sentiments shared by large numbers of people, and both of them were obviously not acting on behalf of any larger organization or conspiracy.

The words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are highly charged, overdetermined and politically explosive. Responsible forces in our society should be working towards building a consensus that make senses about what does and does not constitute terrorism. For their own clear and perfectly reasonable reasons the FBI, much of the political right, and now Arab and Muslim American organizations are all pulling for the broadest possible definition, but I don’t think this serves our discourse, security policy or national interests very well. We would be better served by a more precise definition that distinguishes between politically-motivated acts conducted by organizations or broader conspiracies, no matter how small, on the one hand, as opposed to violent outbursts by mentally unbalanced individuals acting spontaneously and solely on their own behalf on the other. As a friend of mine put it, this is the distinction between terrorism by design and terrorism by default.

Of course it’s true that Abdulmutallab and other operatives of broader conspiracies and organizations are frequently in the grip of emotional or mental instability. It’s one of the things that makes them easy to recruit and manipulate. But the fact that they’re acting in behalf of other people who are probably not subject to abnormal emotional or mental instability, but rather are unscrupulous fanatics is, I think, a decisive distinction. A more complicated case would be Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who was acting on his own but I think could still be considered a terrorist in this context because of the sustained nature of his actions. In other words, Kaczynski reflected a conspiracy of one because of the carefully calculated and ongoing nature of his neo-Luddite bombing spree. I would argue that the most useful way of thinking about terrorism is that it reflects some kind of essentially ideological rather than emotional motivation which can be detected from elements such as its origin in larger organizations or conspiracies, or its sustained, non-spontaneous nature. That is one kind of threat facing society. Violent outbursts by mentally and emotionally unstable individuals such as Stack or Hasan seems to me, quite clearly, to be essentially another kind of threat. Conflating them confuses an issue that demands the maximum achievable clarity, and its doesn’t serve Arab or Muslim Americans any better than our fellow citizens or our society as a whole.