In one way, I agree with all of the people who have clamored to label Joe Stack a terrorist. He did, after all, commit murder with the intent of spreading a political message, hoping to strike fear into the hearts of people across the country. As Andrew wrote:
But I want to make a few simple points: this was obviously an act of terrorism. When someone is mad at the government, and when he flies a plane into a federal building, killing two and traumatizing countless others and urges others to do the same, he is a terrorist.
This is, of course, correct. But even if it is, does it really mean anything? I mean, this isn’t terrorism in the sense that terrorism has come to be understood in the age of the war on terror: This was a lone nut whose ravings were so scattered that you could conceivably make the case that he’s either a radical tea partier or a radical leftist. There’s no organization backing the man, no plan to spread further death and destruction on American soil. Furthermore, what he did was planned and carried out entirely on domestic soil. This is the sort of thing the FBI and the courts were designed to handle.
“Oh, but what about the foreign terrorists!” you hear people cry. “Surely they should be treated as no better than common criminals and thugs in order to show just how little importance they actually have! They’re no worse than Joe Stack!” This is, of course, utter nonsense. Let’s leave aside for the fact that there’s an enormous difference between a lone nut and an organized killing machine — the same difference you see, say, between a random mugger and La Cosa Nostra — and instead focus on the fact that we tried treating terrorists as common criminals for a long time. What did we get? 9/11. From a recent New York Times profile on Andy McCarthy:
The trial was an early success for the Southern District’s elite terrorism prosecutors. From 1993 to 2001, they also handled two trials stemming from the 1993 World Trade Center attack, a trial in the plot to blow up a dozen American airliners over the Pacific Ocean and another in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa, which killed 224 people.
In addition, the investigations broke up deadly plots before they could be carried out and turned up a wealth of information about Al Qaeda. The trials have been cited by the Obama administration to justify its support of civilian prosecutions of terrorists.
Mr. McCarthy said he understood why the office pursued the prosecutions. “I mean that’s the ethos of the place is that you want to do the cutting-edge case.” But, looking back, he said, he questioned the focus, particularly given that Al Qaeda kept escalating its attacks. He cited the 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American servicemen, and Sept. 11.
“We become headquarters for counterterrorism in the United States,” he said. “Not the C.I.A. Not anyplace in Washington. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.”
“From the country’s perspective,” he said, “it’s not a good thing.” A prosecutor’s job, he added, “is not the national security of the United States.”
In June 1998, the office secretly indicted Osama bin Laden. Three months later, Al Qaeda blew up the two embassies.
“I mean, we could go into the grand jury and indict him three times a week,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But to do anything about it, you needed the Marines. You didn’t need us.”
Back to my larger point: Yes, Stack may have been a “terrorist.” But it doesn’t really do much good to think of him in the same context as Osama bin Laden or any other cog in the war on terror. There’s no cognitive dissonance at play to suggest that Stack and other one-off crazies like him need to be treated differently than combatants captured on the battlefield of a foreign country who belong to an organization that has killed thousands and thousands of Americans.
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