When Economic Stress Becomes Terrorism
Poverty, Rather Than Anti-Anything Ideology, Is the Common Thread
Joseph Stack is not a terrorist in the sense that we apply this word to operatives for al-Qaida and other groups and he certainly is not a Tea Party terrorist. The same is true for Terry Hoskins. However, both these men provide useful illustrations of the link between economic distress and terrorism.
Stack, of course, is the Austin Texas software engineer who last week set fire to his house and then flew his single-engine Piper Cherokee airplane into the Ecehelon building, housing government tax workers. Friends in Austin called him a straight-laced, quiet person who struck them as incapable of such carnage. However, those who knew him longer said Stack had great animosity for the IRS.
Back in the 1980s and 1900s, two entrepreneurial ventures started by Stack ultimately were put out of business by California’s Franchise Tax Board. The first was suspended for non-payment of back taxes totaling $1,153. The second was suspended for failure to file a tax return. Stack acknowledged his errors but was apparently driven over the edge by the federal government’s bailout last year of various troubled banks and auto companies.
Stack wrote that a little guy like him making little mistakes was ultimately hounded by the government in disputes that cost him his marriage, more than $40,000, and “ten years of my life.” Yet when the companies were deemed too big to fail, Stack wondered, “Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities . . . and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours?”
Terry Hoskins probably is not known to most but in my hometown of Cincinnati he was making headlines locally at about the same time as Stack was making them nationally. Hoskins is a successful businessman. Several years ago, he built himself a sprawling, luxurious $350,000 home, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts. Over the years, he got into several payment disputes with RiverHills Bank, which holds the mortgage on his property.
When his brother and former business partner sued Hoskins, the IRS placed liens on his commercial properties. The bank promptly claimed his home as collateral. Hoskins asserts he eventually found someone else to loan him the $160,000 he needed to pay off the mortgage but the bank refused, saying it could get more from selling the house in foreclosure.
“When I see I owe $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000, and someone decides they want to take it – no, I wasn’t going to stand for that,” Hoskins said. So two weeks before he was due to turn the property over to the bank, Hoskins rented a bulldozer and turned his dream house into rubble. His business is scheduled to go up for auction on March 2 and Hoskins says he is considering leveling that building too.
Stack and Hoskins clearly committed acts of violence and wanton destruction but are they terrorists?
In response to Stack crashing his plane, Democratic Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas released a statement calling it “a cowardly act of domestic terrorism.” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said he preferred to describe it as “a criminal act by a lone individual.” Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post reports that caused an acquaintance of his to wryly observe, “If a white Texas guy flies into a government building, it is a contained criminal act.”
Democrats seem eager to depict Stack as a terrorist and none too coyly point out some striking similarities between his list of complaints and the sorts of things sometimes said/yelled at Tea Party gatherings. Republicans call this nonsense, insisting there is no equivalence – ideologically or in results – between Stack’s plane crash versus the men who crashed four commercial jet airliners into the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and a Pennsylvania field, killing thousands.
I have to agree that neither Stack nor Hoskins were likely inspired to their acts by Tea Party rhetoric, even if it turns out they attended or closely followed the events. While these gatherings attract their share of fringe individuals, they are far too loosely organized to be called an anti-government group. Nor is it fair to characterize Tea Partiers as exclusively Republicans, even if they generally trend toward conservatism.
Moreover, as Stack’s suicide note/manifesto, posted on the Internet hours before his death, reveals, the same individual can mix hatred toward big government, big business, and even big religion in equal measures.
However, I think it is a mistake not to consider the presence of distinctly terrorist elements in Stack’s and Hoskins’s mental states and actions. Robert Wright observes in today’s New York Times that, like other terrorists, Stack “saw himself as part of a cause, as one in a long line of fighters against tyranny.” More than a few Americans identify with that cause, even finding a heroic component in Stack’s desperation. Hoskins has received similar expressions of support.
Mark Potok, a Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, say that extreme and violent acts of rebellion, such as those committed by Stack and Hoskins, “[tap] into a very deep vein of rage against the government.”
Also like other terrorists, Stack had a message to get out and was willing to foster fear through violence until his grievances were addressed. “Sadly,” he wrote, “though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer . . . Nothing changes unless there is a body count.”
Likewise, Hoskins hopes banks view his act of destruction as a kind of veiled threat, leading to a desired end. He told reporters he hoped to “make banks think twice before they try to take someone’s home, and if they are going to take it wrongly, the end result will be them tearing their house down like I did mine.”
When a crazed olive-skinned Muslim Army psychiatrist goes on shooting rampage at Fort Hood and/or crazed black-skinned Muslim student attempts to blow up an airplane with an underwear bomb, conservatives accused the Obama Administration as being soft on terror and decried resistance to wide scale profiling of Muslim males as “political correctness.” Yet when the attackers are white, middle-class males, these same conservatives are quick to dismiss them as unconnected lone crazies. It seems a tad inconsistent.
Yet in one sense, they may have a point. Wright and others think the term “terrorist” has become overused and ought to be dropped. I sympathize with their frustration. Terrorists” have come to connote all-powerful super-villains, so evil and so impossible to contain that our ordinary system of laws is powerless against them and citizens should gladly sacrifice basic rights for safety.
However, assuming we keep the term, Stack and Hoskins nicely demonstrate how economic distress can turn to terrorism. Granted, they are/were not Third World impoverished peasants. Both are/were affluent, educated, middle-class men who took advantage of numerous opportunities afforded them and made some foolish choices along the way that came back to haunt them.
Yet if the sudden loss of affluence – and perhaps more important, a sudden sense of no longer being in control – could drive these educated, middle-class men to acts of violent desperation, consider how a life of abject poverty with no hope of advancement might affect Third World Muslims or create guilt in Muslims living in Western democracies.
Radical Muslim clerics do not create the violent hatred that fuels terrorism anymore than Tea Party organizers; they simply use it constructively or destructively toward their own ends. The roots of terrorism and violence lie in poverty and hopelessness.
That is something to think about as we consider the current economic distress sweeping across this country and debate the best ways to address it. We are faced with a situation where more and more middle class are quietly drifting in desperation into an underclass.
If we do not address how to create employment and stem the bleeding of jobs overseas, if we do not address how to reduce the spiraling costs resulting from continued reliance on non-renewable energy sources, if we do not address how to reduce the spiraling costs from out-of-control healthcare and health insurance industries, we are heading for a reckoning.
Failure to deviate from the status quo means that the anti-government and anti-business activists of the near future will not need to poke about the fringes of society to find a few extreme individuals driven to desperation, such as Stack and Hoskins. Instead, their potential converts will be legion.
The Bell http://blog-thebell.blogspot.com/