On February 18, 2010, Joseph Stack intentionally crashed his airplane into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas. Innocent life was lost, and thousands were terrified. But nobody rushed to pronounce him a terrorist. The media called him 'frustrated,' 'deranged,' and 'disgruntled,' but seldom a terrorist. No public figures that I am aware of countered the spin.
To many this may seem to be a simple omission, but it is a glaring one at that. In American popular culture and discourse, we only call Muslims (or, for those who don't know the difference, Arabs) terrorists.Whether we like it or not, this is Islamophobic. Muslims are being singled out as targets for a debilitatingly charged word -- while other Americans are left immune from it.
Everyone now knows the story of Joe Stack, the aptly named regular Joe whose outrages stacked up in his own mind until he hit the breaking point, setting his house on fire and flying his Piper Cherokee PA-28 into the Echelon office complex in Austin, Texas. In taking his own life, Stack injured thirteen people and murdered Vernon Hunter, a 67-year-old father of six. Watching the thick smoke jet out of the windows of the Echelon complex on television, I had the strangest feeling that I had seen this sort of thing before. Wasn't there a name we used to use for people who flew planes into buildings in order to kill Americans? We used to say that these were the actions of a... the actions of a...
Ah, yes. Thank you,Wall Street Journal! These were the actions of a "tax protester." I knew it started with a 'T.'
I was fifteen when protesters flew planes into the Twin Towers, only back then we called them terrorists. Are we no longer terrified by airplane suicide attacks? I doubt it. So what's the difference? Those murderers were from Saudi Arabia, they had dark complexions and unpronounceable names; Joe Stack was your next door neighbor, an engineer from Pennsylvania by way of Texas. His fervor was more acceptable to us, less foreign to the American mind. He hated the government. He hated taxes. His sickness, and his violence, already live here, and this will not be the last time we see the smoke.
Cluchey's recommendation is to label Stack a "terrorist" for the sake of internal consistency. But there may exist an even better alternative: ridding our lexicons of the term "terrorist" altogether. It is a label that can be used to smear. And it has disproportionately been wielded against a particular religious community. The overuse, misuse, and inconsistent use of the word "terrorist" may itself comprise a threat to America's well-being.