23 February 2010

The Ballad of Joe Stack

The similarities are there: taking control over an airplane that isn't yours and flying it over civilian territory before crashing it into a building filled with civilians. But one of these incidents represents, in most people's minds, one of the worst days in America's history. The other, which happened only recently, is spawning American-made Facebook fan pages and approving Twitter posts.
What is happening here?
When Joseph Stack crashed a single-engined plane into an IRS office in Austin last week, one of my immediate fears was that both the man and the act would become twisted into some sort of mythic folk-hero status about standing up against perceived tyranny. Nearly a week later, the New York Daily News is reporting that there was a Facebook fan page (since deleted) with quotes like, "Finally an American man took a stand against our tyrannical government that no longer follows the Constitution," and Twitter posts praising Stack's action, including this one: "Joe Stack, you are a true American Hero and we need more of you to make a stand."
So how come there is such a vast gap between the horrors of 9/11 and Stack's last flight? I don't think we'd see any Americans praising Mohammed Atta on Facebook, so why does Stack get a page?
It reminds me of the aphorism "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter." While I don't agree with much of what Stack wrote in his rambling six-page suicide note, I can understand his frustration facing what he felt was a monolithic wall preventing him from succeeding. I understand the pain he felt when he wrote about being unable to find work. I understand when he railed against the perceived injustices of the United States tax code, and how needlessly complicated it could be. But that's where I draw the line.
I'm afraid this is just the beginning for the myth-making regarding Stack's last flight. I fear that, in some circles, his example could be used to inspire others. It's a reminder to me that the same type of seething hatred of the federal government that inspired the homegrown militia movement in the 1980s and 1990s didn't fade away in the wake of 9/11. It merely laid low until the time was right, and, with the election of Barack Obama, has come back. We've seen the Barack/Joker "Socialism" posters and the town hall meeting shout-downs last summer. There is obvious anger towards our government, which I can empathize with to an extent. I get the distinct impression that Stack's action would have been met with something different in some of these circles than the wave of repugnance that the average American citizen probably felt at the thought of a man deliberately crashing an airplane into a building full of American citizens.
What I don't understand is how anyone could fully justify Stack's action as one of patriotism. While no one likes the IRS, they perform an essential function in collecting the revenue the government uses to maintain the physical infrastructure of the roads we drive on, the police and fire departments that keep us safe and the very armed forces that maintain our dominant status in the world. If it weren't them, it would be someone else doing the same job. While I empathize with those who find tremendous difficulty navigating through the tax code and the perceived notion that tax money pays people to be lazy, I don't believe this in any way is a justified reason to crash an airplane into a building full of people working for the organization.
Bottom line: if a foreign citizen crashed an airplane into an American building, there would be no doubt in people's minds that it was a terrorist attack. Get a white American male behind the control column, and the lines apparently begin to blur.
"But Stack was just angry at the government and he wanted to make a point," I imagine one of his defenders saying. Maybe. But on 9/11, Osama bin Laden wanted to make a point. He wanted to show his extreme displeasure with the United States by crashing four airplanes into two buildings. On Feb. 18, Joseph Stack wanted to make a point by crashing one airplane into one building. No matter how you look at it, it is still a person/persons crashing airplanes into buildings with civilians, despite the ideological basis or scale of impact. So why is one detested and one revered?
Perhaps "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter."

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