Joseph Stack was technically a terrorist, but… by mattsteinglass

I hate to disagree with Kevin Drum, but I think his demurral at the use of the term “terrorist” for Joseph Stack is wrong. On the other hand, I think it’s also true that we wouldn’t normally call Stack a terrorist in quite the same way that we would use the term for the 9/11 Al-Qaeda teams, or (to keep things ideologically balanced) for the Stern Gang team that blew up the King David Hotel.

Drum points to Dave Neiwert’s citation of the FBI definition of terrorism:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve (1) acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; (2) appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (3) to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (4) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. [18 U.S.C. § 2331(5)]

He demurs on two points. On 2), he says that Stack’s suicide note didn’t make it entirely clear whether he wanted to intimidate civilians, because he may only have wanted to kill himself to make his statement. I don’t really understand this objection. First, IRS staffers are “civilians”; the FBI definition is clearly just trying to say that an attack isn’t clearly terrorist if it targets military personnel. But clearly we would consider an attack on, say, Congress to be a terrorist attack, not a legitimate military action. In any case, Stack’s message (“Nothing changes unless there is a body count…I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt”) make it clear that he was trying to inspire massive violence against the IRS. If he had set himself on fire in the middle of the street, that’d be one thing, but he flew a plane into a building during working hours. I mean, c’mon.

Second, Kevin objects on 3) because:

Stack doesn’t really have a policy he wants changed. He’s mad at the government, he’s mad at paying unfair taxes, and he’s mad at the turns his life has taken…”Jews out of Palestine” is a policy grievance. Ditto for “abortion is murder,” “freedom for Tamil,” and “Jim Crow forever.” But all Stack has is a vague and inchoate rage.

I think if you consider this a disqualifying objection, you would have a hard time indicting the 9/11 hijackers for terrorism. It has never been clear what their precise goals or demands were. That the US withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia? That Israel withdraw from the West Bank, or cease to exist? That the Caliphate be reestablished? Like Stack’s, the motives of Al-Qaeda terrorists are a baffling swirl of resentments and half-formed, incoherent demands. The actual, rational objectives of those who organize such terrorist attacks are strategic or tactical: Al-Qaeda may have aimed to provoke the US into a military intervention in Afghanistan, which it thought it could use to bleed its enemy; Hamas often aims to torpedo peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and so forth. But these aren’t generally the motivations of those who actually carry out the attacks.

So I think that on definitional grounds, you have to grant that Stack’s suicidal plane attack on the IRS was an act of terrorism. But at the same time, we don’t put it in the same league as attacks by trained agents of Al-Qaeda or the Stern Gang, because it’s not part of an organized campaign of violent intimidation that furthers the aims of a political organization. The Oklahoma City bombing, with its clear links to the militia movement and its explicit (if crazy) ideology, was more like the terrorism we see from Al-Qaeda or the Qassam Brigades. Stack’s act was more like what the Unabomber was up to: the lone act of a disturbed man with no coherent vision of how his desired political change could come about. But, again, we’d all call the Unabomber a terrorist.

Actually, Maj. Hasan probably could have used therapy by mattsteinglass
November 10, 2009, 10:41 am
Filed under: Crime, Terrorism | Tags: , , , , , , ,

David Brooks has a strange column today on the response to the Fort Hood massacres that rambles on for a while about how people construct narratives to make sense of their lives, then drops the Islamic-extremism bomb and makes a vague and irritating connection between Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and “political correctness”. Fortunately Marc Lynch rebutted Brooks’s column yesterday before Brooks even wrote it, correctly explaining:

A lot of people — some well-meaning, some clowns or worse — evidently want the American response to the Ft. Hood shootings to revive the post-9/11 “war of ideas” and “clash of civilizations” anti-Islamic discourse.  It’s a jihad, they shout, demanding careful scrutiny of the loyalty of American Muslims.  That’s what they seem to mean by the demand to throw away “political correctness” and confront the ideological menace.  The overall effect of their recommendations, however,  would be to revive the flagging al-Qaeda brand and to greatly strengthen the appeal of its narrative.

As Lynch says, US military and government officials, in emphasizing that Islam has nothing to do with Hasan’s attack, are enhancing American security by refusing to play Al-Qaeda’s religious polarization game.

Brooks’s column begins with four paragraphs of vague “stories create meaning” stuff, and then launches into a kind of Dirty Harry-era whine about political correctness and the “rush to therapy” somehow letting Hasan off easy:

A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation. Hasan was portrayed as a victim of society, a poor soul who was pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness.

There was a national rush to therapy. Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors.

This response was understandable. It’s important to tamp down vengeful hatreds in moments of passion. But it was also patronizing. Public commentators assumed the air of kindergarten teachers who had to protect their children from thinking certain impermissible and intolerant thoughts. If public commentary wasn’t carefully policed, the assumption seemed to be, then the great mass of unwashed yahoos in Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.

That’s not patronizing. What’s patronizing is to believe that Americans are incapable of holding two points in their heads simultaneously: Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors, he was under stress because of a certain level of stigma and teasing apparently experienced by a lot of Muslims in the US military, he was worried about being deployed, and he responded to these stresses by becoming increasingly attracted to radical Islamicist ideology. It is hardly revolutionary to note that people who become terrorists tend to be males who are socially ill-adjusted, often sexually unsuccessful, and under various kinds of stress.

This doesn’t “absolve” Hasan of “responsibility” for adhering to radical Islamicist ideology and then killing a lot of people. The idea that people who engage in acts of spectacular terrorism tend to be a little crazy and this contributes to their adoption of radical ideology really isn’t hard for most Americans to get their heads around. But it appears to be hard for David Brooks to get his head around. Brooks’s column gets weirderer and weirderer as it goes on:

The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy.

Wha…? There must be some kind of copy-editing mistake here. I’ll withhold comment until I see whether Brooks explains his point in a correction. But this isn’t even the craziest part of the column. That comes at the end:

It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.

Assuming you like to use the word “evil”, how is someone who kills multiple people because of “social maladjustment” — Ted Bundy, say — not doing something “evil”? Why is a serial killer less evil than a terrorist? Or if you take more of a Christian position and posit that it’s not the sinner, but the sin, how was the random slaughter practiced by the DC Sniper, who was scheduled to be executed today, less evil than what Nidal Malik Hasan did?

Look: there is a difference here. The difference is that the existence of radical Islamicist ideology contributes to the propensity of some very upset and socially maladjusted individuals to shoot American soldiers, just as the existence of radical anti-abortion ideology contributes to the propensity of other very upset and socially maladjusted individuals from a different socio-ethnic background to shoot American obstetricians. And the appropriate response is to talk about how to combat the spread of such hateful ideologies. This has exactly nothing to do with “political correctness,” or with assigning more or less “blame” or “responsibility” to Nidal Malik Hasan. I don’t even know what Brooks is trying to say. It’s like some weird grab-bag of late-1970s conservative anti-counterculture resentment. It’s not, as Brooks would put it, “morally or politically serious” thinking.

Why is blackmail illegal, and other fake paradoxes by mattsteinglass
October 15, 2009, 12:48 am
Filed under: Crime

This Lizzie Widdicombe piece in the New Yorker is kind of cute, but it’s also slightly sophomoric. I’m frankly surprised that Jamie Lindgren, the Northwestern professor who kicks off the article, finds it such a paradox that blackmail is illegal:

Lindgren is the author of a paper called “Unraveling the Paradox of Blackmail,” which raises the question: why is blackmail considered a crime? The thinking goes like this: It’s perfectly legal for Halderman to write, or threaten to write, a screenplay (or an e-mail to TMZ) exposing the fact that David Letterman had flings with “Late Show” employees. It’s also legal for Halderman to ask Letterman for money as part of a business transaction. So why are the two things illegal when you put them together?

This is the kind of thing that average people wonder about the law when they have a naive view of the law as a set of technicalities that can be outfoxed with clever word games. There are all kinds of legal activities that become illegal when you put them together, for quite obvious reasons. It’s legal for me to put hydrochloric acid in a bottle, and it’s legal for me to put a label that says “Grape Soda” on a bottle. It’s illegal for me to put a label that says “Grape Soda” on a bottle full of hydrochloric acid. A closer analogy: it’s legal, though immoral, for me to get up in front of a bunch of elementary school kids and say “Smoking is great for you!” But it’s illegal for me to accept money from a cigarette company to get up in front of a bunch of elementary school kids and say “Smoking is great for you!”

Death penalty: kills fewer innocent people than tsunamis by mattsteinglass
October 14, 2009, 3:57 am
Filed under: Crime

Everybody (or at least Publius and Megan McArdle and a million or so other crazy hippies) is all up in arms about how Texas Governor Rick Perry has abruptly fired half the members of a review panel that was just about to examine whether or not Todd Willingham, who Texas executed in 2004, was actually innocent. And it appears increasingly likely that anyone who recognizes that the Grateful Dead symbol is not actually a Satanic cult call sign will find that he was.

Well, okay — say the guy was innocent, and Texas put an innocent guy to death this one time. And let’s even grant that it’s not the only case. In fact, imagine for the sake of argument that 50 percent of the people Texas puts to death were innocent. Texas executed 423 people between 1982 and 2008, so let’s call it 212 innocent people killed by the state. Now, look at all the time, effort and money being spent on trying to get Texas to reform or eliminate its death penalty practices. It must be millions of dollars, not to mention all the media attention. If all that money were being devoted to ending malaria in Africa, isn’t it obvious that it would save thousands and thousands of innocent lives?

Clearly Texas Governor Rick Perry is right that this use of resources is wasteful and that there are better ways for public officials to be spending taxpayer money right now than re-examining whether or not Todd Willingham actually committed murder, or whether he was just a poor guy who first went through the horrible tragedy of having his three beloved daughters die in a fire and then had his name smeared and was killed by the government for no damn reason at all. And I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that Rick Perry’s name is the one on the execution order.

Extremely sad by mattsteinglass
October 8, 2009, 6:37 am
Filed under: Crime | Tags: , , , , , , ,

“The way people look at me sometimes when I am out running errands, I feel as if I am wearing a scarlet letter, and really it’s a Glock 26.”

via Gun-toting soccer mom is shot dead | Breaking Midstate News with The Patriot-News – – .

The difference being, Hester Prynn didn’t choose to wear the scarlet letter.

The gangs of Beijing by mattsteinglass
October 1, 2009, 11:24 pm
Filed under: China, Crime, Vietnam

China’s other face: The red and the black | The Economist.

Good, detailed report on the rise of gangsterism in modern China. I hear businessmen here in Vietnam talk occasionally of the “black” figures you need to placate in order to receive permits, resolve legal disputes, etc., but it’s all too mysterious to really get a sense of.

Maybe Bonnie and Clyde getting shot? by mattsteinglass
August 12, 2009, 11:23 am
Filed under: Crime


Eric Rauchway (Corpses as artifacts of a cowboy culture. « The Edge of the American West) posts a Douglas Eckberg chart showing the US murder rate was a lot higher than we usually think, or than the Census figures showed, up to 1930 or so. (Via Matthew Yglesias.)




US murder rate in 20th Century



Yglesias notes that high murder rates tend to be self-reinforcing. My question is: what the hell happened in the mid-30s? It was the middle of the Depression. People were starving and living in shacks. Photos make much of the country look like Darfur today. You’d think that would lead to resource conflicts. Yet the murder rate fell steadily. Why? Because the New Deal was magic? Because the economy, though still at a miserably low level, had bottomed out and was growing rapidly? What?

Also, you’d think that sending all the country’s young males to other continents from 1942-45 to legally kill foreigners would drive the murder rate down, but instead it seems to have briefly shot up. Weird.

Deep thought by mattsteinglass
May 21, 2009, 9:09 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Crime, United States

I would feel so much safer if everyone everywhere were carrying a loaded weapon.

Dick Cheney, a Raskolnikov for our times by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2009, 9:16 pm
Filed under: Crime, Human Rights and Torture

Why can’t Dick Cheney leave well enough alone? If he would just maintain a decorous silence, he’d probably have dropped off the radar, or at least be protected by the shroud of respectability that settles over former Presidents and VPs. But he can’t seem to stop scratching that itch, drawing the attention of vengeful justice inexorably towards himself.

Perhaps, like Raskolnikov, he is tormented by guilt over the crimes which, in a fit of shallow self-interested rationalization, he had decided that History granted him, an Exceptional Man, the moral license — nay, the duty to commit? Perhaps some part of him wants to be punished?…

      “And I know now, Sonia, that whoever is strong in mind and spirit will have power over [men]. Anyone who is greatly daring is right in their eyes. He who despises most things will be a law-giver among them and he who dares most of all will be most in the right! So it has been till now and so it will always be. A man must be blind not to see it!”

      Though Raskolnikov looked at Sonia as he said this, he no longer cared whether she understood or not. The fever had complete hold of him; he was in a sort of gloomy ecstasy (he certainly had been too long without talking to anyone). Sonia felt that this gloomy creed had become his faith and code.

     “I divined then, Sonia,” he went on eagerly, “that power is only vouchsafed to the man who dares to stoop and pick it up. There is only one thing, one thing needful: one has only to dare! Then for the first time in my life an idea took shape in my mind which no one had ever thought of before me, no one! I saw clear as daylight how strange it is that not a single person living in this mad world has had the daring to go straight for it all and send it flying to the devil! I … I wanted to have the daring … and I killed her. I only wanted to have the daring, Sonia! That was the whole cause of it!”

     “Oh hush, hush,” cried Sonia clasping her hands. “You turned away from God and God has smitten you, has given you over to the devil!”

And Raskolnikov knows. “I know myself that it was the devil leading me,” he says.

     “Well, what am I to do now?” he asked, suddenly raising his head and looking at her with a face hideously distorted by despair.

     “What are you to do?” she cried, jumping up, and her eyes that had been full of tears suddenly began to shine. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder, he got up, looking at her almost bewildered.) “Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.”

I’m not really sure this kind of thing works for criminals in real life, as opposed to Dostoevsky novels. But it’d be a start.

Jeff Sessions’s wonderful legacy of false convictions by mattsteinglass
May 8, 2009, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Crime, Drugs, Human Rights and Torture, United States

A little while ago, thinking about torture, I was rereading the section of David Chandler’s “Voices from S-21″ in which he talks about how Khmer Rouge interrogations, purges and torture, like those of Stalin’s NKVD before them, had driven people who’d never done anything wrong to invent testimony incriminating themselves, relatives, and anyone else they knew of imaginary crimes, leading to an ever-expanding witchhunt that threw more and more people in jail (or worse) for crimes that never happened. And then a bit after that I chanced upon a review of the new movie “American Violet”, about a false drug dealing conviction in Texas in 2000.

And the two things together reminded me of a fantastic Frontline documentary I saw almost a decade ago, Ofra Bikel’s “Snitch”, on how harsh mandatory federal drug sentences in the US and prosecutorial discretion to grant reduced charges in exchange for cooperative testimony in fingering other “conspirators” were leading to cases in which drug dealers were fingering their innocent friends and cousins, who in turn fingered their innocent friends and cousins, getting ever-expanding circles of acquaintances sentenced to decades or life for drug offenses they hadn’t committed or that never took place at all.

One thing that was extremely powerful about the documentary was the witless performance of the Southern Alabama federal law enforcement officials Bikel interviewed. One egregious case she looked at involved Clarence Aaron, a college student who’d never been involved in a crime before but was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences because his cousins, facing long sentences for buying small amounts of cocaine from dealers who were never apprehended, “cooperated” with prosecutors by claiming Aaron had sold 9 kilos (!) of cocaine for $200,000 — although neither police nor anyone else could produce, nor had they ever seen, the 9 kilos, nor, for that matter, a single gram of the alleged cocaine, nor the alleged $200,000. The US District Attorney for Southern Alabama, one J. Don Foster, insisted Aaron was “guilty as sin” but was unable to provide any evidence other than the self-interested testimony of the two cousins; he seemed completely blindsided by the suggestion that if you’ve sentenced someone to 3 consecutive life sentences you ought perhaps to have some concrete evidence that a crime had taken place. And then he adduced, as justification for the life sentences, the fact that Aaron had refused to cooperate by confessing or naming more names! Unbelievable.

But here’s the thing that jumped out at me, rereading the transcript of Bikel’s interview with Foster.

What is your position?

I’m the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, [which] includes 13 counties from Mobile on the Gulf Coast to around Tuscaloosa on the north end.

Why are there so many federal drug cases in this district?

Well, the drug policy in the past has been very aggressive. I mean, we have been after drug users and drug distributors, and the big fish primarily, for a long time. It’s been traditional in this office, it’s been historical in this office. …

Who started it?

I would say probably it goes back to the Sessions tenure, who’s now a United States senator. He was in the office for 12 years. …

Oh, great. Jeff Sessions. And this is the guy who’s now the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The line that stuck with me most in the documentary, but which doesn’t seem to be captured in the online transcripts, was when Bikel asked Aaron why he hadn’t dreamt up a false accusation against somebody else to get his own sentence reduced. Aaron’s response as I recall it: “Miss Ofra, who was I gonna turn in? Everybody I could have snitched on was already in jail.”


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