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When is a Terrorist Not a Terrorist

Don Rose 22 February 2010 One Comment

I was sitting in a hotel room in Vegas watching CNN when the news broke about a light plane crashing—quite intentionally—into that Austin, Tex., building where 200 Internal Revenue Service employees worked. In minutes they had the name of the American kamikaze pilot and quotes from the rambling suicide note he left on the internet.

Andrew Joseph Stack III also set fire to the home he shared with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, who recently split because he had been acting strangely of late.

Stack, who worked free-lance in computer technology, had issues with the IRS. Imagine that! Otherwise, according to all his friends and neighbors he was just the sweetest guy—no one would ever think he was capable of such an act. It’s always that way, except when it’s not.

Apart from damaging the building, which was not owned by the IRS, he killed one and seriously injured two workers, but since he died instantly he never got to know whether he had achieved his sick revenge.

Meanwhile the deep thinkers were having a field day asking each other whether this was a terrorist act—akin perhaps to Timothy McVeigh’s blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City back in 1995, killing nearly 200 people.

But a lone-wolf terrorist act was not really on the cable-babblers’ minds in this post-9/11 world. They were thinking capital-T terrorism, the kind generated from afar, like the Middle East.

“There’s no doubt,” said one great mind, “that if his name was Muhammad instead of Stack, that this would clearly be a terrorist act.”

I don’t know whether the speaker was making a witticism or a self-styled profundity, but in the popular mind he was right. The rest of the report was devoted to photos and charts and maps showing how easy it would be for a capital-T terrorist to replicate Stack’s action. His Piper plane took off from a field minutes away from his target. There would simply be no defense against such an act—and the plane could be loaded with gasoline or other flammable that would extend the damage.

Remember the light plane that landed on the White House lawn when Bill Clinton was a resident? What if that had been a malign rather than goofy act?

The answer to the terrorism question is complicated. First, unless the FBI learns something very new and different, this was simply the individual act of a diseased, frustrated, paranoid mind that finally snapped. And, yes, by choosing his target so carefully he was making a public statement with this suicide attack. It was, like several past incidents, intended to terrorize the IRS and perhaps us.

Oddly enough, it followed that bizarre multiple murder by an even more diseased mind, University of Alabama neuroscientist Amy Bishop, who shot and killed three colleagues and wounded three more because she was angry at not being granted tenure. There’s a motive for you.

In Bishop’s case we learned quickly that she was long considered a weirdo by colleagues and students. Look deeper and there’s an arrest record and—oh yes—killed her brother with a shotgun. Beyond weird, but not a terrorist.

Compare her case to another recent multiple murderer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the American-born army psychiatrist who slaughtered 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. Texas again. With a name like that, there was little doubt this was an act of capital-T terrorism—even before we learned that he attended a mosque in Virginia at the same time as two 9/11 terrorists.

He was also a follower of Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda-supporting preacher who works at radicalizing American Muslims. Hasan was a willing subject. He grew increasingly concerned and spoke out against our wars in Muslim countries. His fellow doctors were concerned, but none dared question his state of mind, most likely out of political correctness.

Did this psychiatrist also have a diseased mind? Or was he acting rationally according to his beliefs? He’s still hospitalized so we won’t learn more for a while.

I once thought psychiatrists would be the most rational of beings, but then Radovan Karadzic, the genocidal Serbian war criminal, is also a shrink. So much for preconceptions.

Terrorism has many faces and many definitions. We must learn to draw distinctions because it will be with us in many forms for a long time to come.

Then we can get back to the important stuff, like Tiger Woods apologia.


Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

One Comment »

  • Paul McGrath said:

    Probably the term terrorist has outlived its usefulness.

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