Joe the Terrorist


We’ll soon be hearing more than we ever needed to know about Joseph Andrew Stack III, the man who burned up his house and flew a suicide mission into an Austin IRS office this morning. We’ll no doubt discover that neighbors and friends are shocked; that he was a quiet fellow, kept to himself, nobody imagined … you know, the usual. Meanwhile, folks in the left-wing and right-wing media will be furiously spinning Stack and his six-page suicide note into an object lesson about the dangerous tendencies of—take your pick—anti-government tea-partyers or left-wingnuts in “socialist” enclaves like the Austin area.

Stack’s self-described suicide “rant,” discovered on his Web site before the FBI shut it down, provides fodder for either side to pick up and run with. If you want to lay his actions at the door of the radical elements in the tea-party movement, you can pick out some of Stack’s words—calling the U.S. government a “totalitarian regime,” for instance, or sounding like a tea-party keynote speaker when he writes that “In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws.”

But that could also be language from an anti-war rally. And while we might yet find that he was a member of the Texas Nationalist Movement or some such right-wing group, Stack hardly sounds like your typical John Bircher. Along with his detailed litany of IRS woes, he complains about “the joke we call the American medical system” and the failure to enact health-care reform (“It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in”). Hardly striking a white-supremacist note, he writes that “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.”

And there is a serious populist critique—one shared by many on the left and right and in the middle—of the bank bailout as a symbol of America’s having been sold to corporations and the wealthy. “I remember reading about the stock market crash before the ‘great’ depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows when they realized they screwed up and lost everything. Isn’t it ironic how far we’ve come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn’t have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it’s ‘business-as-usual.’ “

And then there is Stack’s closing note:

“The communist creed: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

“The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”

You could hardly get further from the tea-party right than this. Hatred of government is a staple of the movement; a loathing of capitalism is antithetical to it. For the tea-party rank-and-file, capitalism—pure, unfettered, libertarian—is the panacea for all ills, and government is the evil force that prevents free markets from exercising their universal benevolence.

We might yet learn that there’s something deeply political or ideological behind Stack’s apparent act of domestic terrorism. But his own words of explanation don’t lend themselves to that kind of pat assumption. Stack appears to have been a frustrated middle-American with a tragic screw loose.

Maybe it’s true that the anti-government venom of the right helped tip Stack over into violence. Then again, maybe it would have happened anyway. And maybe, in the end, the scariest and saddest thing is that a good deal of what this suicidal 54-year-old had to say was not mere ideological jibberish: Stack’s words are those of an unhinged man who felt caught up in a system that, while not as hopeless as he’d concluded, is undoubtedly deeply unjust. And his death, no matter his twisted intentions, won’t change it one whit.