Mucker v. Terrorist

…Jerry Bruckheimer is already making the movie, and if not…call me anytime Jerry and I’ll give you a plot.

So in the blogs and in the comments below, we’re wrestling about what to call – and how to react to – the crazed guy who flew a private plane into the local IRS headquarters.

The usual suspects on left and right are trying desperately to tie him to the Tea Party movement or to socialism (based on one incoherent suicide note).

Juicebox Matt and Sully are patting everyone on the back, saying that it’s clearly terrorism and the reaction to this incident is a model for how we should react to terrorist acts.

John Robb says this is a canary in a coal mine (and I worry that he’s right).

Patterico and I disagree; he says it’s clearly terrorism, I say no it’s not.
I’m left really, really uncomfortable that we’re looking at this in the right way.

Here’s a CNN interview with the filmmaker Pierre Rehov, who made the great documentary ‘Suicide Killers

You get a clear sense of the ideology that grows terrorists as a deliberate tool in its combat with the wider world.

Both terrorists and muckers (see definition) do the same things – if you take the actions out of context, they look alike. But that’s just it – by taking the actions of of context, you’re depriving them of their meaning, and in doing that I’ll argue one risks making some serious mistakes.

Muckers arise from anomie; from the spiritual/philosophical crisis that seems to run through modernity (one reaction, and one belief, is the orgasmic self-destruction contained in the Romantic ideal at the heart of Bad Philosophy). Muckers are essentially random, and somewhat self-generating. They will be triggered by personal issues (I’m hearing that the Austin mucker’s wife was leaving him after a trail of business failures and tax crises), but a generalized ‘failure to thrive’ socially. they may hang their actions on a hook – anti-cop in the case of the Washington or Oakland muckers – but there is no coherent philosophy behind muckerdom and there is no social change we could make that would accommodate them.

And, more importantly, there is no organized social movement working to grow them.

Terrorists, on the other hand, act less out of anomie than out of belief; out of a social construct that extends well past them and lionizes their behavior – thereby helping grow the next generation.

Rehov’s film is about Islam, but there are other ideologies that have done this; early militant Christianity certainly did, and today you see it in the black nationalist movement and their counterparts in the various white power movements; they key word here isn’t ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Islamic’ – it’s movement.

The pressures of modern society shake loose a certain number of people who finally go amok; but certain belief systems are growing up that not only want to harness that drift, but seek to encourage it so that they can harvest the violence that it breeds.

The crazy antitax movements that the Austin mucker (I deliberately obscure his name) was on the fringes of didn’t have in their core doctrines the belief that you should blow up tax buildings. When they do – when that becomes a part of the pernicious beliefs that get espoused there – then these acts will have moved to the category of terrorism and we should treat them as such.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no acceptable government security response to muckers. I think that there are a number of things that government should do to improve the economy, to improve its own legitimacy, to help rebuild a narrative of America that we can participate in emotionally and spiritually.

But practically? not so much.

There are a number of appropriate responses to movements that mean to grow muckers, however. Working to dismantle those movements is absolutely the right thing to do, and the possibility of dismantling the movements at the root or terrorist acts is what distinguishes terrorism from simple acts of mindless rage.

10 thoughts on “Mucker v. Terrorist”

  1. I think Stack has more in common with the “Virginia Tech shooter in ’07″: or the “Pittsburgh shooter last year”: (or further back, the “Columbine shooters”: ) than bin Laden or “Randy Weaver”: . Trying to apply a rational framework to a mindset that has been fundamentally warped and distorted won’t yield any useful lessons or information, other than that, yes, in fact, the person was mentally disturbed and had lost their grip on reality. His “manifesto” has the rambling style of the latter cases’ (you could also compare it to the “Unabomber’s”: Exploring their madness in search of answers isn’t a particularly rewarding use of time, except perhaps for psychologists and profilers as part of their professional practice.

    The “crazed person crashes small plane into building and leaves rambling suicide note” scenario has “played out before”: , there’s not a whole lot new here.

  2. I respectfully disagree. I think this is a tough call, but on balance I think it meets my definition of terrorism, if weakly, accidentally, or both.

    My definition comes out of the Patriot Act, which paraphrased, lays out a two-pronged test of means and motive. The means must be an act of illegal violence or hazard. The motive must be one or more of: Intimidation or coercion of a civilian populace, influence of government policy, or disruption of government through kidnapping or assassination.

    Honestly, if someone asked me to sit down on October 1, 2001, and write a definition of terrorism, that would have come very close. (The Act was passed near the end of October, and I probably wouldn’t have thought to include kidnapping or assassination.) So it’s not just that I’m using the legal definition, it’s that I think the legal definition is pretty well-conceived, anyway. It’s not perfect– no classification scheme is– but it’s pretty good.

    Crashing a plane into a building seems like a slam dunk on the violence and hazard angle. (Also, illegal.) And, there is a clear statement of motive in the suicide note about waking up the American zombies and trying to provoke a government over-reaction, leading to rebellion. In other words, the stated intent of the very violent act was to get the government to do something.

    That said, I hear and sympathize with your notion that isolated lunatics aren’t terrorists, but I still disagree. Theodore Kaczynski was a lone lunatic, and he was certainly a terrorist. The difference was, he wasn’t a suicidal one. But I don’t think that changes the basic act or the basic intent.

    Even more, do I think Stack thought to himself, just before the plane hit, “This’ll do it. It’ll all unfold just like I want it to?” No, of course not. He was in suicidal despair, and that mindset does not lead one to imagine success at just about anything. That, more than anything else, makes me want to take him out of the terrorist category. It’s just so… sad and laughable. It’s obviously not going to work. But that doesn’t mean it’s not terrorism by the definition I like. It just means it’s not successful terrorism.

    I also think it’s perfectly possible, and to some degree desirable, to put him in the terrorist category and then not overreact. Allocate a small but reasonable amount of counter-terrorism assets, do a reasonable investigation, make sure that he isn’t part of some bizarre, loosely-strung group of suicidal weirdos– for that matter, make sure that some bizarre, loosely-strung group of suicidal weirdos don’t adopt him as a martyr– and go on with life.

    What I don’t have is any particular sense of outrage over the disagreement.

  3. Marcus, the FBI is investigating the crash. They had a 24 hour command post at the scene, they shut down the Georgetown airport, and they are putting the site through their gigantic forensic sifter. If Stack had one friend in the world, that person is getting a visit from the FBI.

    In short, they are doing everything that they would be doing if Joe Stack had been Carlos the Jackal.

    Maybe they should interview Matthew Yglesias, who says Stack was an “activist”. Apparently he knows something they don’t.

  4. I think you are missing the key point. Terrorists do not equal Terrorism. Terrorists are just the lower echelon of a hidden structure having high aims, designed to manipulate public opinion.

    Sometimes there are groups that seem to act alone, but generally they are linked in one way or another to those structures: they were trained by them and/or they were given access to resources and clandestine networks.

    Besides these “breakaway groups”, there might be some succesful – for reasons I won’t explain – imitators. But they are just that, they lack the hidden support and high political aims true Terrorists have.

    BTW, excuse me but, according to the Patriot Act, weren’t the Founding Fathers terrorists?

  5. A.L.,

    No, I don’t think either of those examples pass muster on the “intimidate a civilian population,” or “influence government policy,” note.

    The guy who kills the meter maid would have to (for example) be sending a bunch of letters to City Hall threatening to kill a meter maid unless the zoning codes are re-written. Or have left a suicide note behind, but shooting a meter maid isn’t as immediate a ticket to death as crashing a plane into a building. It would be a bizarre and pathetic act of terrorism, but it would fit.

    The gangster, I can conceive ways in which that would fit (if a gangster were specially targetting particular cops, like the chief of police, making it an assassination) but the way you’ve written it, no.

    A lot of organized crime activities skirt right up close to the line, in nations with strong and effective police forces… and cross the line in nations with weak and ineffective police forces. But in the United States, at least, the primary motivator is usually money, and the consequences of crossing the line interfere with the flow of money.

    (It gets very dicey when organized crime tries to influence policy for the purposes of making money, which makes that definition problematic in weakly policed states like, say, Mexico. Or Colombia a few decades ago. But the Patriot Act is a United States law written in a United States context for the United States.)

  6. My vote goes to “neither”. To quote “Dennis the Peasant”: (a practicing CPA), “Andrew Stack was a tax cheat and nothing else. His woes were not the product of a government run amok; they were the product of a foolish man making – repeatedly – foolish decisions.”

    Essentially, Stack tried to claim his house as a church in the 80’s, fought the requirement for contractors to pay self-employment tax thoughout the 90’s, and failed to file tax returns throughout the 00’s. His problems weren’t the result of a moribund economy or a few bad choices, or Bad Philosophy. He just didn’t want to pay taxes.

    This particular canary died of natural causes. It was merely nailed to the perch, if you will.

  7. Marcus, I’ve gotta keep pushing back.

    Gangsters have as developed a ‘belief system’ and social support organization as this guy did; and they attack the police with a clearer intent of changing public policy (keeping the police out of their neighborhoods and business).

    This was an act of rage, pure and simple. I saw DtP’s analysis, and kind of agree – I think there are a lot of people who get in trouble these ways, and aren’t a risk the way this guy was.

  8. Paul Berman’s thesis in Terror and Liberalism is that anomie and bad philosophy reinforce one another to create a kind of “black hole” into which a lot of people begin to fall in modern societies. But the primary engine of destruction isn’t anomie, it’s an Ur myth that begins to pull people as a positive attraction. Absent this Ur myth, you don’t have “terrorism” you’ve just got an event that’s symptomatic of anomie. It’s important to keep these concepts separate, since the latter, although a risk factor, isn’t the driving independent variable. And for all we know it’s nothing more than a correlate, with no cause/effect relationship at all.

  9. As I said, organized crime gets dicey by this definition. I still think it’s a good one, though. If an organized crime group is really killing people with the intent of getting a real policy change enacted, then, yeah. I’ll put ‘em in that category.

    But there’s some care to be taken, here. There’s a difference between, “We gotta kill these cops because they’re going to send us to jail and/or cost us money,” with the natural result that the cops get wary, and “We gotta kill these cops so that none of them ever come back.”

    The former, no, not terrorism. The latter… well, yeah. Especially Tough to prove, though, without documentation. Defining crimes by intent is difficult and error-prone. Stack just made it easy with his rambling suicide note.

  10. Marcus, that definition is overbroad. By your standards, if a rural drug addict doesn’t get their disability check on time and beats the postal carrier – that’s terrorism. Every pissed-off urban parker who abuses or threatens a meter maid – terrorist. Every wannabe gangster who shoots a cop – terrorist.

    C’mon, that standard just doesn’t survive reality (and note that I’m as critical of the official standard as I am of your argument).

    Are you _really_ going to try and suggest that there’s equivalence between this nut and the Aryan Nation gang that was taking down banks to finance their white purity compound in Idaho (or was it Washington…)??


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