It captured the spirit of the age with horrifying exactitude: At first, we thought the small plane that crashed into the IRS office building in Austin Thursday afternoon was a terrorist attack. Then we breathed a sigh of relief. Well, a partial sigh of relief. It wasn’t a foreign-born terrorist who had been flying the plane at all. It was an American, a 53-year-old software engineer named Joseph A. Stack III, who had moved to Austin from Southern California in search of a living and a new life.
Yet so absolute was Stack’s estrangement from American power that he borrowed his tactic from the 9/11 terrorists, American’s most committed enemies. Today’s virulent populists will have a hard time turning Stack into a folk hero—despite the fact that something like Glenn Beck’s "9/12 Project," in its make-believe nostalgia for a "united" America in the wake of September 11, longs for precisely the same kind of monumental violence that occurred on that bloody day. American terrorists and would-be terrorists are as angry as their Islamic counterparts. And—like Beck himself—they are bored with fighting off their private demons, day after day.
Stack excoriates the IRS but gives a favorable nod to communism, as if the latter's tax rates were somehow more manageable.
Beck, Palin, the Tea Party—we are all aware of the toxic atmosphere. Stack’s assault on a government building was a shock but not a surprise. When Ronald Reagan famously said in 1981, during his first inaugural address, that government was not the solution to our problem but the problem itself, he unleashed the dogs of paranoid war—not just politically, but psychologically as well.
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Fourteen years later, in the midst of Clinton’s unabashedly progressive presidency and its vicious right-wing backlash—the Reagan-inspired, anti-government Contract With America—the homegrown Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, taking the lives of 168 people. McVeigh later claimed to be exacting revenge for the federal sieges and deaths in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (1992) and Waco, Texas (1993)—places where Americans alienated by government and conventional society had armed themselves and circled their wagons into isolated enclaves. The replacement of Reagan by Clinton seemed to hallow anti-government paranoia.
But the trauma experienced by some people during the transition from Reagan to Clinton is nothing compared to the terror provoked by the radical shift from Bush to Obama.
Clinton only acted like an existentially real black man, for one thing; and he didn’t take the helm during the worst economic crisis in over 75 years, or lay out nearly a trillion dollars rescuing the economy, spending billions saving the skins of plutocratic bankers and auto executives in the process. In the early 1990s, you did not have a president trying to explain to millions of unemployed, bankrupted, and foreclosed-upon Americans how collecting their tax dollars and laying them at the feet of the richest and most powerful people in the country saved the day—in spite of the fact that millions remain unemployed, bankrupted, and foreclosed-upon while the plutocratic beneficiaries of Obama’s largesse seem never to have missed a cocktail party.
If the 1990s were awash in anti-government violence, thanks to Reagan’s cretinous rhetoric and his vast income tax cuts, we are in for far worse. Part of the reason the violence is going to be more common and intense this time around is because the paranoia is not limited to voluntary exiles who live in armed compounds. The John Birchers aren’t the only ones who think the Federal Reserve is in cahoots with the banks. I no longer think that's such a far-fetched possibility myself, and, probably, neither do you.
But, then, anti-government paranoia became a staple of enlightened critical thinking a generation ago. It made its way from the New Left in the '60s to the counterculture that extended beyond the '60s, into just about every Hollywood film that takes up the subject of American politics and delivers the same cynical portrait of the corrupt American president/congressman/district attorney/law-enforcement agent... just fill in the blank with one malevolent authority figure or another. If Waco was the Armageddon that finally revealed the true villainy of government to the right, then Watergate performed the same function, 20 years earlier, for liberals and the left.
Maybe this ecumenical loathing of the government is why Stack, in the lengthy explanation for his kamikaze flight that he posted online, lashed out at both George W. Bush and Obama’s bank bailout. He excoriates the IRS but gives a favorable nod to communism, as if the latter's tax rates were somehow more manageable.
Let’s face it. We all mistrust and perhaps even despise our government to one degree or another. Obama himself was elected with the expectation that he make government absolutely transparent and accessible: that is, with the expectation that he make government disappear. And the more we mistrust and even hate government, the less willing we are to allow government to help us, and the less government helps us, the more we mistrust and hate it. America’s radiant contribution to history—the sovereign individual—has become a Frankenstein’s monster. We will not allow anything to obstruct our individual will, even as we call upon government to fulfill its multiple obligations to our will.
No, Joseph Stack was not a foreign-born or a foreign-instigated terrorist. He was as American as fat-free, all-natural, organic apple pie, from his government-hatred to his interminable online autobiography—as chillingly earnest, and coherently indignant, and politically neutral a document as you have ever seen.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.