Stack’s afterlife

by Alexander Cockburn

Stack’s afterlife

“I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”

Joe Stack was now 30 words from the end of his life. He continued: “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. Joe Stack (1956-2010).”

Then, on Feb. 18 of this year, the computer-software engineer climbed into a Piper Cherokee plane and flew it into the IRS building in Austin. When the smoke cleared and the fires put out, the IRS counted many injured and one dead, Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran on the edge of retirement.

Later that day, Stack’s 36-paragraph suicide note surfaced on the internet. Though opaque in recitation of his precise personal grudges with the taxman, as a farewell blast at the system, it was eloquent on the essentials of the American Way: “When the wealthy [expletive] up, the poor get to die for the mistakes.” Such a system, Stack wrote, is “one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us….” What to do? “Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

From several Republican politicians, hoping to harness the huge head of political steam building up in a society facing mass unemployment for years to come, Stack’s last flight got astonishing respect. “It’s sad the incident in Texas happened,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, “but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.”

Scott Brown, the Republican who just took over the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, told Fox TV that “people are frustrated. They want transparency. They want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things affecting their daily lives….

No one likes paying taxes, obviously. But the way we are trying to deal with things in the past, at least until I got here, is there is such a logjam in Washington, and people want us to do better.”

This is a man who was just bellowing on the campaign trail in Massachusetts that “We are at war…. We’re at war in our airports. We’re at war in our shopping malls.” Come a bona fide terrorist attack on a government installation by a suicide bomber, and Brown pretty much canonizes him as a logjam buster.

The mainstream news reports used words like “rambling” to shove Stack’s farewell message to America into the nutball slot, but all over the internet, you could find tamer assessments. Paul Craig Roberts, assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan era and a widely read libertarian columnist, wrote that Stack was “one of the 79 percent of Americans who have given up on ‘their’ government,” that he was “sane. Like Palestinians faced with Israeli jet fighters, helicopter gunships, tanks, missiles and poison gas, Stack realized that he was powerless. A suicide attack was the only weapon left to him.”

The 79 percent stat invoked by Roberts refers to a recent Rasmussen poll, which found that only 21 percent of the American population agrees with the statement that the US government has the consent of the governed. Rasmussen concludes that the gap between the American population and the politicians who rule them “may be as big today as the gap between the colonies and England during the 18 th century.”

Some draw a parallel to the fury of the militia movement in the mid-1990s, which culminated in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 on April 18, 1995.

But McVeigh’s act was designed specifically as revenge for two lethal onslaughts by the federal government, an FBI standoff with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, which led to the killing of Weaver’s wife by an FBI sniper, and then the onslaught by federal agents on the religious group known as the Branch Davidians, in their compound outside Waco, Texas. On April 19, 1993, the feds incinerated 80 Branch Davidians, some of them children.

A common thread is the populist hostility to central government power, but in the mid-1990s, there was not the sharp edge of hatred for the rich and powerful, for the corruption of the political system that boils in Stack’s letter and that caught the mood of that huge slice of America that is the lower-middle class — politically frustrated, economically beleaguered and increasingly embittered.

When a vast class feels it has no effective political representation, you have an explosive brew. The left, dismayed by Obama’s systematic demolition of all their expectations, is nonetheless quiescent. The ferment is entirely on the right. The recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC — in recent years, a neo-con affair — saw Texas congressman Ron Paul, an outsider candidate for the Republican nomination in 2008, win an informal straw poll. Paul wants to bring all US troops home and abolish the Federal Reserve.

The Tea Party is an amalgam of angered moderate- and low-income whites. The mood is defiant fury and insistence on honoring the regalia of the US Constitution and its Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. It’s not a fascist party. As the historian John McMaster wrote of American third parties back in 1896, these third parties “have been the expressive features of our political life, and have reflected every gust of passion, every unreasonable prejudice, every ennobling purpose, every patriotic sentiment that has appealed strongly to the people.”

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. ‘ 2010