When most Americans think of terrorism, certain images come to mind: airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. Muslim men with long beards in Afghanistan. Dark-skinned people trying to set off bombs on airplanes.
But is Islamic-based terrorism a primary threat? Maybe the face of terrorism is more diverse than that. Perhaps it is also a middle-aged white man. Perhaps it looks like Joe Stack.
On February 18, Stack, an Austin, Texas man with tax problems, flew his personal airplane into the Internal Revenue Office Building in Austin. He killed one IRS employee and himself. His manifesto explained that the IRS forced him to violence after a tax code switch in the 1980s ruined his life. Stack’s violent attack on a federal institution is only the latest example of right-wing terrorism to afflict the United States in recent years.
Some have questioned Stack’s right-wing credentials. They point out a reference to communism in his manifesto. This is possible. Parsing the political leanings of an unhinged and suicidal man can be tricky and counterproductive. However, his anti-government leanings and attack on the Internal Revenue Service comes straight from the right-wing playbook.
Regardless, conservatives have taken up Stack’s mantle. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a likely candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination, told the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend that conservatives needed to “smash the windows out of big government.”
Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King went a step further, expressing sympathy for Stack’s actions. He told a CPAC crowd that they also needed to “implode” IRS offices. Stack’s own daughter has portrayed him as hero. Samantha Bell told Good Morning America that her father’s noble death should serve as a wake-up call to people to stand up against government agents she considers “pompous political thugs and their mindless minions.”
The man Stack killed, Vernon Hunter, served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War. Yet the hero is apparently his murderer.
Stack is the latest in a long string of violent right-wing attacks in recent years. On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers, was shot and killed in his church by the anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. On June 27, 2008, an unemployed truck driver named Jim Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire, killing two. He attacked the Unitarian church for its acceptance of gays and support of abortion rights, and claimed he wanted to kill every Democrat in the House and Senate.
The right-wing Tea Party movement has employed violent rhetoric as well, including a speaker at a Washington state rally claiming she wanted to hang Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Some have called Stack the first Tea Party terrorist. While Stack doesn’t seem to have had explicit connections to organized right-wing activism, his actions come from the same conservative anger at the federal government and liberalism.
The most famous example of right-wing terrorism occurred in April 1995, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two men with long-connections to right-wing militias, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 people died that day.
These rural-based militias preach anti-government extremism, often mixed with white supremacy, and constitute a real threat, as McVeigh and Nichols proved. Yet the United States has yet to have a serious public dialogue about increasingly frequent right-wing terrorism.
We have three major public spaces to remember victims of terrorism and to think about terrorism’s impact upon national identity. The first is the former World Trade Center site in New York. The second is where Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania. And the third is the Oklahoma City Memorial.
At the first two, visitors can visualize the bad guys, but the Oklahoma City Memorial does a remarkably poor job at contextualizing the attacks. The site is tremendously heartbreaking, but you get no sense that McVeigh and Nichols had right-wing connections. They read like isolated crazy people who just wanted to kill innocent women and children. You see the McVeigh and Nichols as two evil men, not as representatives of a larger terrorist movement.
Politics do enter the Oklahoma City Memorial. The exhibits have several references to so-called “eco-terrorism.” The museum paints eco-terrorism as a serious threat to American national security. Examples of this horror include groups like the Earth Liberation Front setting fire to SUVs in car lots and the 2008 arson of a luxury home development in a Seattle suburb.
While I’m not excusing such actions, they aren’t terrorism. They aren’t attacks upon government institutions, they are not designed to inspire terror in the American population. They are stupid acts of outrage over the destruction of the environment.
When environmentalists start killing CEO’s of chemical companies or blowing up Exxon-Mobil office buildings, then we can make legitimate comparisons between radical environmentalists and right-wing terrorists. Discussing this dubious threat at the Oklahoma City Memorial obscures McVeigh and Nichols’ political leanings.
Of course, conservatives don’t want you to make these connections. They worked hard to ensure an apolitical Oklahoma City Memorial. Say what they will, but events like Oklahoma City, Knoxville, and Austin serve conservative purposes.
Talk-radio and the internet spew an endless expectoration of hate. Republicans might publicly distance themselves from this, but Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et al have created a powerful conservative movement with the potential for violence. Jim Adkisson explicitly cited right-wing radio as having influenced his actions.
The threat of right-wing domestic terrorism provides at least as great a threat to the nation as Islamic terrorism. And it’s far past time we started talking about this. How many Americans have to die before we take right-wing terrorism seriously?