I can't believe people are seriously debating whether yesterday's suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin was an act of terrorism. If the manifesto attributed to pilot Joe Stack and published on his website is authentic, then he was a terrorist.
This passage should remove all doubt:
Nothing changes unless there is a body count (unless it is in the interest of the wealthy sows at the government trough). In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws.
I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.
I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are. Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.
A classic definition of terrorism is using force, or the threat of force, to coerce a civilian population to advance a political or ideological agenda.
Stack wasn't politically-motivated in the sense that his agenda fits any recognizable political philosophy. His manifesto isn't liberal or conservative, it's a paranoid incoherent mishmash of populism, rage, and self-pity.
Still, Stack thought he was striking a blow against a tyrannical government. He wasn't like the disgruntled postal worker who decides to destroy all the supervisors who made his life miserable. Stack said he hoped that his spectacular act of violence would galvanize others to rebel against the government. Those are clearly political motives.
Sure, he wanted revenge, but he intended for his act of vengeance to have broader repercussions. Stack's attitude wasn't so different from a Palestinian suicide bomber who hopes his martyrdom will inspire others. It wasn't a totally irrational idea. Within minutes of the crash, Stack fan sites were springing up online.
In his manifesto, Stack explicitly articulated a motive often attributed to terrorists: Goading an adversary to overreact, thereby fueling a backlash. Osama bin Laden hoped that the 9/11 attacks would provoke the U.S. into declaring war on a Muslim country. Stack hoped to provoke the U.S. government into further unpopular restrictions on personal liberties.
Terrorism isn't a natural kind. It's a somewhat arbitrary category that is supposed to encompass a broad spectrum of behavior. The best definition is the one that draws the most illuminating distinctions.
The most interesting hallmark of terrorism is the use of spectacular violence for psychological leverage. The terrorist knows that a big enough atrocity will force us to pay attention to him, and by extension, his political agenda. Stack was in no position to lead an insurgency against the U.S. government, but he could own the news cycle for a day or two. By this definition, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan was a terrorist. He apparently wanted to strike a blow for his version of Islam against the U.S. military.
There are gray areas, of course. Real life is a lot messier than the neat categories we create to make sense of it. There's probably a continuum between terrorists and mass killers with more personal motives.
Was ultra-misogynist gym shooter George Sodini a terrorist according to the leverage through spectacle criterion? Arguably he was because he went on a shooting spree to draw attention to his alleged grievances against the entire female gender, and no doubt to intimidate or coerce women in general. Though he didn't make any specific political demands, his spree definitely had a strong ideological component.
Contrast Stark, Hasan, and Sodini with Jiverly Voong who gunned down 14 people at an immigration services center in Binghamton, New York. Voong was lonely, unhappily unemployed, and furious at the world, but it seems unlikely that he went on the rampage to draw attention to the plight of people like him, or some social or political condition that he blamed for his misery.
Terrorism has always been a tool of asymmetrical conflict--a tactic used by the weak against the strong. But in an age of mass media, terrorists gain ever more power over us. Any attack anywhere is national news for days. We live in fear, not that we're going to get blown up, but that someone, somewhere is going to blow himself up and the whole world will go crazy. It's the crazification we should be afraid of.
Terrorists, and the demagogues who gain power by promising to protect us from terrorists, are exploiting our inability to reason objectively about risks. Terrorism has never killed as many Americans as automobile accidents. Yet the U.S. reshaped its entire foreign policy and legal system in response to terrorist attacks. Whether counter-terrorism real motive is irrelevant. The point is that large numbers of people decided the terror threat dire enough to Change Everything.
So it's no surprise that future disgruntled zealots who hope to Change Everything will look to terrorism.