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.


Why is a terrorist scarier than swine flu? by mattsteinglass
January 10, 2010, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Terrorism

Like Paul Campos, I didn’t think Kevin Drum’s response to, um, Paul Campos was very apt. Drum wrote:

The panic caused by the underwear bomber wasn’t so much over the prospect of a planeload of casualties, it was over the reminder that al-Qaeda is still out there and still eager to expand its reach and kill thousands if we ever decide to let our guard down a little bit.

So even if you agree with Campos, as I do, that overreaction to al-Qaeda’s efforts is dumb and counterproductive, it’s perfectly reasonable to be more afraid of a highly motivated group with malign ideology and murderous intent than of things like traffic accidents or hurricanes.

Why is that reasonable? Is it because if we let our guard down, Al-Qaeda will try to murder more and more of us? But if we let down our guard against all sorts of other threats, they, too, would result in more and more deaths. Non-intentional agents of destruction like avian and swine flu, in fact, will probably kill vastly more Americans than Al-Qaeda is capable of, if we let our guards down. But Barack Obama’s presidency isn’t going to be at risk if he’s perceived as not being utterly gung-ho in the war on swine flu, and indeed if he diverted major resources from Afghanistan to enhancing our flu-vaccine capabilities most people would probably (wrongly) think he was crazy.

For that matter it’s not even clear that Al-Qaeda would murder more Americans if we “let our guard down,” not for all values of the word “guard”. Increased scrutiny of people from Nigeria at airports may in fact inspire more Nigerians to try to kill Americans than it prevents from doing so. And to the extent that Al-Qaeda’s goals include getting Nigerians more pissed off at America, our increased scrutiny may lead Al-Qaeda to conclude that trying to kill Americans on planes remains its most promising strategy, leading to more attempts to bomb airplanes.

The reason we freak out more about Al-Qaeda than about traffic accidents is that Al-Qaeda is made up of humans, and enemy humans inspire hatred, while threatening natural phenomena merely inspire fear. Humans are biased towards responding to human-directed threats because human-directed threats are part of the contest for power within and among human polities. Ultimately, contests for power, particularly between males, result in greater evolutionary fitness. This is why when you see a guy coming at you with a baseball bat you have a fight-or-flight response, whereas when you see a boulder coming at you, you just have a flight response. But in the case of Al-Qaeda this response is misplaced. We’re not engaged in a dominance contest where we have to show how tough we are or risk having our women taken away. We’re dealing with people trying to stage provocations. The fact that Americans keep responding as if this is a dominance contest is exactly what AQ counts on to pursue its strategy, which was Campos’s point.

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.

Dr. Evil's Payday | Mother Jones by mattsteinglass
September 11, 2009, 12:07 am
Filed under: Terrorism

Dr. Evil’s Payday | Mother Jones.

Jerk runs astruturf organization that pretends to “protect” consumers by subjecting them to payday lenders who charge 39% interest rates.

Also bankrolls the “Center for Consumer Freedom”, which does stuff like a site called “”. Here’s their “About” page: is a project of the Center for Consumer Freedom. We’re a nonprofit consumer-rights group, and we’re concerned that fish is getting a bad name. It shouldn’t be that way, since seafood offers such a good mix of protein and healthy fatty acids.

Oh — did we forget to mention we got paid by seafood producers to make this website? Gosh, how did that slip our minds. Yeah, you’re a nonprofit consumer-rights group, and I’m the Queen of Spain, and I sentence you to be devoured by fire ants. Scum. Their phone number is 202-463-7112. In case you’re interested.

Actually, an even shorter post by mattsteinglass
June 2, 2009, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Terrorism

I probably should have just responded to Megan’s initial post, which basically argues this:

Still, I am shocked to see so many liberals today saying that the correct response is, essentially, doubling down.  Make the law more friendly to abortion!  Show the fundies who’s boss!  You know what fixes terrorism? Bitch slap those bastards until they understand that we’ll never compromise!

Well, it sure worked in Iraq.  I think Afghanistan’s going pretty well, too, right?

Using the political system to stomp on radicalized fringes does not seem to be very effective in getting them to eschew violence.  In fact, it seems to be a very good way of getting more violence.  Possibly because those fringes have often turned to violence precisely because they feel that the political process has been closed off to them.

This is simply wrong. Using the political system to stomp on radicalized fringes is very effective at getting them to eschew violence. It worked in the US to destroy left-wing violent groups in the 1890s and again in the 1970s; it worked against left-wing terrorists in Germany and Italy in the 1970s and ’80s; it worked in France in the ’60s (against the post-Algerian pied-noir right-wing fascists); it worked in the US to destroy right-wing terrorist violence in the South in the ’60s; and so on. It doesn’t work where one nation is trying to stomp on a different nation to get it to eschew violence, which is why it hasn’t worked in Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine and didn’t work in Northern Ireland. But when a government responds to internal extremist violence that has very little popular support by cracking down viciously on the terrorists and passing legislation inimical to their demands, that tends to work quite well at disarming the violent opposition.

A somewhat shorter post in response to Megan’s long post on abortion by mattsteinglass
June 2, 2009, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Terrorism

I’m going to try and keep my response to this post as brief as possible.

“The difference between our reaction to the two is that now we know Africans are people.”

If you wonder whether Africans are people, go and ask one of them. If you wonder whether they should be slaves, try asking them for their opinions on the subject.

If you wonder whether a fetus is a person, asking it won’t get you very far.

Let’s think about the significance of this. In order to perpetuate the enslavement of Africans or to exterminate Jews, the first step that had to be taken was to exclude their voices and opinions from consideration via ideological, legal and practical means.

The fact that fetuses cannot speak, and do not have opinions — the absence of that autonomous voice — changes the entire nature of the issue. There cannot be an “Up From Slavery” or “Diary of Anne Frank” of the fetal experience. Instead what we have are people claiming to speak for fetal persons, arrogating to themselves the role of defenders of an entity which others do not believe to exist and for which there cannot ever be evidence of existence.

There are ample psychological and political rewards to assuming the role of defender of the defenseless. It is a role that is even easier to assume when the defenseless entities are incapable of speaking for themselves, because there is no “themselves” to speak.

Now let’s turn to the real thrust of Megan’s post, which is I think a powerful and interesting one. It is that we ought to be as concerned with the motivations of pro-life Christianist terrorists as we are with the motivations of Palestinian terrorists:

Like many contributers to Obsidian Wings, I can understand the structural forces that contribute to Palestinian terrorism without believing the terrorism is legitimate.  Unlike them, apparently, I don’t find it all that hard to transfer that understanding to the fringes of our own democratic system.

There are different ways for polities to respond to the problem of violence at the fringes of the political system. And the proper response depends both on the nature of the people who are engaging in the violence, and on the legitimacy or remediability of their claims.

Pro-life terrorists in the US are less like Palestinian terrorists than they are like the Serbian death squads who carried out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, or the Oklahoma City or 9/11 terrorists. Palestinian terrorists act mainly in pursuit of national self-determination and an end to Israeli oppression. These are real interests appertaining to real people who also speak for themselves. But the Serbians who assassinated Kosovars in defense of the proposition that “Kosovo shall always be Serbian” (regardless of who actually lived there), or the 9/11 terrorists who killed 3000 people as part of a messianic crusade to restore the Caliphate (or something), or the Oklahoma City bombers who acted to stop the Tyrant Bill Clinton from establishing an atheist one-world government, were acting on behalf of imaginary constituencies.

Our response to such terrorism cannot address the causes the terrorists themselves voice, because those causes make no sense to anyone outside their own religious or ideological community. Instead we address such irrational violence indirectly — that is, to the extent that Islamist terrorism is really driven by fury over the Israel-Palestine conflict, we can push for a Palestinian state to relax the tension, and so on. And while we apply these indirect measures of conciliation, we also attack the zealots with the full force of the law and the full opprobrium of moral condemnation.

As we seek to take such rational steps, we are constantly frustrated by a self-reinforcing dynamic of extremism: it is in the interest of extremist groups to set their demands at a level which cannot be remediated by the opposing side. They have an interest in making demands the enemy cannot meet, in order to perpetuate the conflict that fuels their organization. In the case of the pro-life movement, they have placed the locus of their demands inside the bodies of the enemy. They demand that in my family, if my teenage daughter should become pregnant, she be forced to carry the baby to term. They would demand this on behalf of the baby — a person that does not exist.

I once met a woman in Africa who believed with deeply felt urgency that a neighbor had killed her cousin by turning herself into a bat and sucking out her soul at night. I am sure she believed with utter sincerity that a murder had taken place and that she was morally obligated to seek justice. I am sure there were structural reasons that made it psychologically or pragmatically useful for her to believe in witchcraft. But, from my rationalist perspective, I could do nothing for her moral urgency except to recommend that she seek spiritual solace for the emotional pain she had suffered. From my perspective, pro-life extremists are seeking protection and justice and vengeance for imaginary entities, and it is imperative to make it clear to them that the rules of our social order prohibit them enforcing such claims on me, my family, or anyone else.

Not our Van Gogh by mattsteinglass
June 2, 2009, 2:54 am
Filed under: Religion, Terrorism, United States

Not to be pedantic, but Dr. George Tiller is not “our (Theo) Van Gogh”, as a commentor writes to Andrew Sullivan. Theo Van Gogh was an obnoxious, deliberately provocative lout who called Muslims “goat-fuckers” and milked anti-Muslim sentiment for television ratings. He was at times extremely funny, but if he were working in the US he would have been kicked off the air for racism and bigotry in five minutes. He wasn’t a one-trick pony, he’d done good viciously satirical “Borat”-type stuff before he started going after Muslims and he actually made a rather touching “Romeo and Juliet” teledrama about a romance between a Muslim and non-Muslim teenager. But he was a slovenly provocateur who got killed because he was playing with fire in an ammunition dump.

Dr. George Tiller was not a provocateur. He was a professional doctor. He ran a fertility clinic that, along with many other reproductive services, conducted late-term abortions. He practiced medicine according to his convictions and refused to be cowed by political intimidation and harassment. He must have been a very stubborn man, but he fell into a civil war by accident, because he was treating patients in the fashion he felt they needed to be treated. Theo van Gogh deliberately stirred up the conflict that killed him. George Tiller was dragged into a conflict he never sought.