If there was one issue I was absolutely certain that all Americans agreed upon, it was this: we are, uniformly and emphatically, opposed to extremists flying planes into our buildings. I was wrong.
American political periods are often popularly referred to by their overarching themes -- the Era of Good Feelings, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, etc. -- and it was with deep sorrow that I realized this week we may already have hit the epoch of what might be termed the Era of Boiling Blood. 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.
The day of the crash, freshly minted Senator Scott Brown (R-Truck) was asked by Fox News' Neil Cavuto for his thoughts on the attack. "I don't know if it's related," Brown responded, "but you can just sense not only in my election and being here in Washington, people are frustrated." The next morning at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, jokes were already being tossed around about Stack's 'protest.' On Facebook and Twitter, Stack was hailed by many of our fellow citizens as a "true American hero" who took a stand against the tyranny of our government. "His sacrifice was for all of us," wrote one Texan. Stack's actions have been regarded as shared frustrations, as high comedy, as a heroic revolt. I'm willing to bet Vernon Hunter's wife, Valerie, doesn't see it that way, and neither should anyone who hasn't been either a beneficiary of, or themselves grasped by, the new notion that it is acceptable to twist your political positions into zealotry and violence.
It is unclear to what extent Joe Stack was involved with the Tea Party movement -- his well-publicized suicide manifesto (I won't link to it here) seems to indicate a rolling boil of a man with plenty of anger to go around for politicians of all stripes -- but his maniacal anti-government sentiment and paranoia about taxes makes it clear that he is the first casualty of the Tea Party culture, a frenetic version of America where rage justifies everything. Calls for armed revolution, for the hanging of United States senators, for secession: these are the fruits of a dangerous ethos, one based purely on emotion and not at all on rational thought. Stack's act represents the grim transition from the terrorism of 9/11 to the terrorism of 9/12, and we can only hope at this point that calmer heads will prevail before more of the extremist threats of the angry mob come to pass. We can call it a protest, or the actions of a lone wolf, or a symbolic stand taken against the faceless specter of government tyranny. But Vernon Hunter wasn't faceless. He was a husband, a father, and a grandfather. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was an usher at his church. He was planning on retiring from the IRS in order to start a new career helping children with learning disabilities.
But he won't. He was killed by a terrorist who targeted civilians, by a lunatic pushed to the edge by his rage, to an edge this country needs to locate right now before it silently condones one more senseless killer with a plane.
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