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February 19, 2010

Of course it was terrorism

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.


That's the kind of reasoning that has left us giving 'equal time' to unequal viewpoints to the most ridiculous degree. It's pandering to ignorance to grant time to 'the other side' when the other side is patently stupid. The Tea Partiers think they're 'the other side'; what they are are a bunch of reactionary loons, etc., etc., etc., There are people who think that there's 'another side' to women having the vote.

Ginmar, you said: "That's the kind of reasoning that has left us giving 'equal time' to unequal viewpoints to the most ridiculous degree."

No, it's not. It's a point about thoughtful writing, not about thoughtful choice of what to write about. You don't have to spend any time at all rationally dismantling claims you think are patently stupid. But if you do, I still say my comments above apply.

I always thought the idea about giving equal time to unequal viewpoints was partly a function of pervasive but mistaken relativism about - well, you name it, and also partly of a failure to distinguish expressive rights (equal!) and soundness of views expressed (not equal!).

You also said: "It's pandering to ignorance to grant time to 'the other side' when the other side is patently stupid."

Maybe. Maybe not. If I believe a stupid thing and can be made to stop believing it, that's a job well done by the thoughtful writer.

Your comments assume that everyone can be persuaded, that everyone is operating in good faith, and that all arguments have the same merit. It also assumes that there's another side to a story, when in fact it might be one side, or thirty seven other sides. There might, in fact, be no other side to a story. In America, complexities like this do not go over well, so we get stuck with pampering and pandering to crackpot theories just for the sake of giving ersatz balance to something that isnt' really that complicated at all.

Yes, another thing the thoughtful writer does is write as though her readers will engage in good faith with an open mind. She also tries to encourage that, which, as I said, is part of the reason the thoughtful writer avoids intimidation and ridicule as persuasive devices. So I certainly agree with you there.

But nothing about what I've said assumes that "all arguments have the same merit", which is an assumption that would directly contradict what I have actually said.

Personally, I wouldn't choose to introduce the idea of 'sides' at all, and my comments certainly don't assume anything about the number of 'sides' there might be. My comments were about thoughtful writing aimed at the reasoned dismantling of 'a claim', which might be one of two, five or a hundred possibilities.

By being a thoughtful writer, you are not committed to 'pampering and pandering to crackpot theories'. Again, by all means, choose your battles. Having chosen, observe the rules of thoughtful engagement.

I'm not sure what to make of your claim that "There might, in fact, be no other side to a story". Do you mean some meaningful claims are literally undebatable?

Matt, you keep speaking of only arguing against ideas that are "worthy of dismantling," as if the unworthy ones will just disappear by being ignored. But many unreasonable arguments need to be addressed, not because they're "worthy," but because they're popular. However, when addressing an argument that "2+2=5", or "Obama isn't a U.S. citizen because he was born in Kenya," it's neither useful nor reasonable to say "Well, some people have the view that 2+2=4, and some have the view that 2+2=5, and there are arguments on both sides." To do so grants credibility to arguments that should not be regarded as credible. It's worthwhile to write about the batshit insane idea that Obama isn't a citizen, partially because people who aren't batshit insane need to know that this story is out there, and partially because some people who have vaguely heard that maybe Obama isn't a citizen need to have a sane source that can straighten them out.

Your point that to convince people, you may be more likely to convince them if you approach their arguments as reasonable, is well taken, but that depends quite a lot on your audience, and the topic. Creationism is, from a scientific point of view, complete and utter crap. If your audience is a bunch of ardent creationists, it doesn't matter whether you're gentle and conciliatory or a huge jerk, as you won't convince them either way. If your audience are Christians who appreciate science, but have religious reservations, then it's appropriate and useful to let them know that there simply aren't any valid scientific arguments for creationism. That doesn't mean that you don't give "throughtful" explanations as to why creationist arguments they've heard are wrong, and it might be a good idea to avoid phrases like "batshit insane," but you should let them know that the arguments that you're addressing are simply wrong, rather that subtle and complex scientific issues. Acting as if there were reasonable arguments on both sides is not thoughtful, it's misleading and unhelpful. Similarly, if you're arguing with someone who wants to claim that repeatedly drowning someone, but stopping just before they die, isn't torture, you should be clear that they're trying to redefine the word "torture" in a way that's both logically ridiculous, and morally monstrous, partially because it's wrong to accept as "reasonable" monstrous arguments, and partially because legitimizing their arguments begins a process of shiting what arguments are considered "reasonable."

Yes! Except for your first sentence (I spoke of claims judged by the writer to be worthy of dismantling, not intrinsically so, and, as you say, one might judge a claim worthy of dismantling because it is widely believed even if it won't bear much rational scrutiny), and setting aside that mathematical examples aren't good ones for this, I mostly agree with you, and regard what you're saying as mostly consistent with what I have been saying.

Your point about 'granting credibility' to incredible views goes again to choice of what to write about, not about how you write about what you choose to write about.

Other than that, I'd just make clear again that thoughtful writing isn't the same as 'acting as if there were reasonable arguments on both sides'. You might well be writing to make it clear that there aren't. It's much more about acting as if there were reasonable people on both sides, which a thoughtful writer always will, and I don't have anything new to add about that.

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