Six days ago, a guy with a grudge against the IRS flew a small plane into an Austin federal facility that housed the IRS, setting the building ablaze. Besides killing himself, he killed a 68-year-old employee of the IRS. The dead employe's widow also works for the IRS. The guy who piloted the plane blamed the IRS for his business woes, and declared in a message posted online that "violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer."
Six days later, I am still waiting for conservatives to acknowledge the empirical fact that Joe Stack, who settled his grievance against the government by means of a flying bomb, committed an act of domestic terrorism.
Why do they refuse to call the IRS bomber a terrorist? In his message, he endorsed violence and said that by "striking a nerve," he hoped that people would "wake up and revolt." That appears to meet the definition of a terrorist, as spelled out in the federal code (18 USC, Section 2331). The statute defines "domestic terrorism" as "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion..."
And here's the official FBI definition: "Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives."
Yet conservatives, who are often so quick to apply the terrorist label, have been running for cover over the past six days. The columnist Michelle Malkin refers to Stack simply as a "nutball" who was "very disturbed." The Weekly Standard, a magazine that prides itself on its national security vigilance, has posted 62 blog items since the IRS bomber struck - but has mentioned the deadly attack only once. In that lone posting, Stack was dismissed as "all sorts of crazy," because he hated lots of institutions, including unions and organized religion. By making this argument, the Weekly Standard naturally sought to water down the fact that Stack was primarily ticked at the IRS - which is precisely why he flew his plane into the IRS, as opposed to, say, a union headquarters or a church.
Then we have the occasional Republican politician, employing verbal gyrations in order to avoid the T-label. Indeed, the new Massachusetts senator, Scott Brown, said on Fox News that he can feel Joe Stack's pain: "Well, it's certainly tragic and I feel for the families, obviously...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."
No one likes paying taxes, obviously...Hold that thought for a moment.
Let's go now to Iowa congressman Steve King, who was asked about the IRS bomber during last weekend's big conservative confab in Washington. King's comment: "It's sad the incident in Texas happened, 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. I can tell you I've been audited by the IRS and I've had the sense of 'why is the IRS in my kitchen, why do they havee their thumb in the middle of my back?'"
It's sad, but by the same token...The gist of those two comments is inescapable. Here's the argument:
Flying a plane into a federal building was "sad" and "tragic" (and, as Stack's daughter called it, "inappropriate") - but it wasn't terrorism. Rather, it was an act of frustration against government, and to some extent we all feel that same frustration. The IRS bomber hated paying taxes, and since we all "obviously" hate paying taxes as well, what he did was not terrorism. (A further extrapolation, entirely my own: If you're a violent domestic Muslim frustrated with the American government, you're a terrorist; if you're a violent domestic white guy frustrated with the American government, you're not a terrorist.)
The conservative response to the plane bomber brings to mind a syndrome that I witnessed 15 years ago when I was writing a lot of stories in Northern Ireland. Every time the Irish Republican Army bombed a building and killed some civilians, Sinn Fein (the political party most closely allied to the IRA) would lament the tragic loss of life - while nevertheless contending that the IRA's frustrations with the British government were entirely understandable and thus did not constitute terrorism.
Conservatives here might do well to resist that slippery slope to moral relativism.