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What it Really Means

If, as author Bill Blum has noted, a terrorist is someone who has a bomb but doesn’t have an air force, then the suicide pilot Andrew “Joe” Stack most certainly qualifies as a terrorist, having made an effective little bomb out of his Piper Cherokee.  At the minimum, he appears to have been a thoughtful terrorist, so we should pause a moment to consider his thinking.   For crashing his plane into the offices of the IRS in Austin, Tex. – and, worse, for leaving a manifesto explaining why he did it – Stack has been accused by the usual mouthpieces on the Democratic left (Daily Kos, for example) as a right-wing Tea Party loon (the Tea Partiers demur).  His  suicide letter, now published far and wide on the internet, has been dismissed as a “rant” for its “ideological incoherence” and “self-pity,” in the words of Salon’s Joan Walsh, herself a model of the Democratic left in that she can always be expected to say nothing worth reading.

The coherence is there for all to see who have eyes to see it.  Read the manifesto.  “When the wealthy fuck up,” writes Stack, “the poor get to die for the mistakes.”  Such a system, he notes, is predicated on “two interpretations for every law; one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us.”  Stack is talking, of course, about the remarkable functionality of corporatism, or, rather, corporate socialism – socialism for the rich – the marriage of big business and big government, the wealth and power that has accrued in large-scale institutions whose growth the Democratic and Republican Parties have together abetted (the left only somewhat less skilled at it than the right).   Corporations marred by their own stupidity and greed get bail-outs, writes Stack, while healthcare companies plunder the ranks of the sick and the dying for profit.   Big labor unions, he writes, collude with company executives to defraud union membership.   Stack drops $5,000 out of pocket and “at least 1000 hours of my time writing” on various matters to get the attention of his representatives in Congress, only to conclude it is “a futile exercise.”  “They universally treated me as if I was wasting their time,” he writes.   Five thousand dollars and a thousand hours of letter writing was not enough for consideration.

Stack singles out the “vulgar and corrupt” Catholic Church as a “monster of organized religion” that grows inordinately wealthy exploiting religious tax exemptions.  God only knows how much money the “ecclesiastical corporations” (as James Madison put it) are squirreling away by a pretense of service to the greater good.  And, obviously, Stack goes after the IRS, on the charge of “taxation without representation.”  That is, he is attacking a gigantic system of wealth transfer – itself designed, like organized religious doctrine, to confuse, stultify, mystify – that keeps alive a government which ably represents its corporate handlers but coldly calculates the length and breadth of the shaft for its citizens.  As a software engineer in Austin, for example, Stack finds that “three or four large companies in the area” collude “to drive down prices and wages” for engineering professionals like himself, while the Department of Justice, he alleges, does nothing about it.  If true, it’s not a surprising development for a government that in recent years has allowed bigness oligopolies to take the dominant position in just about every major sector of the economy (in banking, finance, food production, energy, defense, steel, pharmaceuticals, airlines, and media), while institutionalizing unfairness for the small man.  Two interpretations of the law: one that favors the large and powerful, the other that dashes the rest of us against the rocks of “justice.”

I would venture that what drove Stack to a suicidal-homicidal rage was in part that he could no longer accept the unfairness of the bigness complexes, no longer navigate the labyrinth with the required shrug and sullen grunt.  I hear in his words distant echoes of Paul Goodman, the author and anarchist and one of the great unsung thinkers of our time.  Writing in 1963, Goodman observed that institutional bigness, and the centralization necessary to maintain bigness, was the bane of American life: “one interlocked system of big government, big corporations, big municipalities, big labor, big education, and big communication, in which all of us are pretty regimented and brainwashed, and in which direct initiative and deciding have become difficult or impossible.”  The assumption, wrote Goodman, is “now appallingly unanimous among the ordinary electorate, professional politicians, most radicals, and even political scientists who should know better, [that] politics is essentially a matter of ‘getting into power,’ and then ‘deciding,’ directing, controlling, coercing, the activities of society” – that is, coercing so that centralization and bigness remain the norm.  The individual, taken alone, is worth nothing in the face of such monstrously outsized structural imbalances.  It’s clear that Joe Stack understood this, feeling worthless enough that the only conceivable act of value was ultimate destruction.

Christopher Ketcham writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s and many other magazines, and is currently working on a book, “The United States Must End,” which advocates the dissolution of the US. He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out next year from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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