What made Joseph Stack crazy enough to crash his plane into an IRS building, and why are some commenters praising him? John Avlon—author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, which predicted that anti-government rage leads to violence—on how tax protesters become unhinged.
Joseph Andrew Stack was a tax protester turned violent.
It's an old Wingnut lineage, with roots in both right-wing and left-wing resistance to the federal government. And yesterday's explosion in Austin, Texas, wasn't the first time that unhinged anger at the IRS resulted in a body count.
His rambling suicide note exhibited more than a man pushed past the brink of sanity by economic anxiety—it expressed the fury at both big business and big government that has fueled political protests during this 18-month manic recession. "They just steal from the middle class," Stack wrote of the big institutions of American life. "Now when the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for their mistakes." Or turn themselves into airborne suicide bombers, as the case may be.
“When people feel helpless in the world, they do dumb, and sometimes morally horrible, things.”
Stack's tale of serial downsizing appears to have run into the IRS back in the 1980s. "Some friends introduced me to a group of people who were having 'tax code' readings and discussions," Stack wrote. "This is where I learned that there are two 'interpretations' for every law; one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us…that little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000.00 plus ten years of my life and set my retirement plans back to zero. It made me realize for the first time that I live in a country with an ideology that is based on a total and complete lie." The anger at America only increased from there. But let's take a step back and look at the larger shadowy movement he apparently embraced.
• Lee Siegel: The Problem with Joseph StackThe Tax Protester Movement—or the Truth and Taxation Movement, as some advocates call it—began with the belief that the institution of the federal income tax under Woodrow Wilson in 1913 has at best been misapplied and at worst is unconstitutional.
By the early 1970s, two distinct schools of Tax Protesters had emerged: leftist anti-Vietnam war tax protesters who got to break the law and get rich(er) while feeling morally superior; and the right-wing Posse Comitatus movement, which argued that the federal government was essentially illegitimate.
While the left-wing group faded with the end of the Vietnam War, anti-government activists on the right gained ground, seeding the "Sovereign Citizens" movement and the Patriot movements of the 1990s. These groups claimed that the highest government authority lay with county officials like sheriffs and that there had been a subtle subversion of the U.S. Constitution that reflected a "criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, disfranchise citizens, and liquidate the Constitutional Republic of these United States."
In 1983, tax protester and Posse Comitatus member Gordon Kahl murdered two federal marshals in North Dakota and a sheriff in Arkansas after they responded to his refusal to pay taxes since 1969.
The Southern Poverty Law Center details a series of potentially violent tax-protester plots against IRS facilities, hitting a fever pitch during the "Patriot" movement of the 1990s, including:
• "July 28, 1995—Charles Ray Polk was arrested for trying to blow up the IRS in Austin, Texas, and sentenced to almost 75 years in federal prison."
• "December 18, 1995—A drum filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was found in the Reno, Nevada, IRS parking lot by an IRS employee. The device failed to explode and 10 days later, tax protester Joseph Martin Bailie was arrested and sentenced to 36 years in federal prison."
• "March 26, 1997—Militia activist Brendon Blasz was arrested in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for allegedly planning to bomb the IRS building in Portage along with the federal building in Battle Creek, a Kalamazoo TV station and federal armories. Blasz was a member of the Michigan Militia Corps Wolverines."
• "May 3, 1997—The IRS office in Colorado Springs was set aflame by antigovernment extremists causing $2.5 million in damage. James Cleaver, former national director of the antigovernment Sons of Liberty group, was sentenced to 33 years in prison."
Of course, not all tax protesters resort to violence. Actor Wesley Snipes argued that he was not required to pay income taxes and was charged with tax fraud and failure to file returns in one high-profile case, which is still on appeal. I spoke to one of Snipes' lawyers, Robert Barnes, a white-collar criminal-defense lawyer and litigator with the Bernhoft Law Firm, after Stack's suicide. I wanted to understand the incident and its shadowy world from the perspective of someone who has represented tax protesters.
"People without an organizational voice feel isolated and voiceless," Barnes told me. "They feel trapped by a broken political system that treats them as criminals because they don't understand tax laws more complex than quantum physics to grasp. When people feel helpless in the world, they do dumb, and sometimes morally horrible, things. It never excuses what they do, but it doesn't excuse the political system's too-typical response of deafness and force. The government's own actions keep unduly radicalizing people who were quiet middle-class neighbors a decade ago."
As the smoke was still clearing from the Echelon building in Austin, bizarrely, Facebook fan pages began to spring up surrounding Joseph Stack's suicide. "This man is a true American hero," declared one poster. "Finally someone who had enough of the government's bullshit and sacrificed his life to open the eyes of Americans. RIP Mr. Stack." Another more common-sensically countered, "But how the hell can anyone look at this and think this guy did a "brave" thing? He had NO idea who might be in that building, and honestly just the mind-set that killing IRS agents is a way to fight the IRS is absurd. They are people doing a job, like everyone else." And in our current Wingnut environment, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would weigh in with Revolutionary War comparisons: "Can the British casualties of the American Revolution be justified? These soldiers were fighting for their country and making a living, but they were also blindly oppressing people and they were attacked for it."
The presence of a digital fringe debate over the desperate and deranged act is itself a sign of our times. When the fires of anti-federal government anger are stoked, it can ignite the unstable among us. And in the case of Joseph Stack, he combined the two inevitables of life—death and taxes—into one murderous moment.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.