04/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Fire Next Time: IRS Plane Assault Hints of Things to Come

Joe Stack's eerie suicide screed rips the curtain open and reveals a bitter bile this country does not know what to do with.


Liberals will surely dismiss Stack's rant as a broiling anti-government battle cry -- Tea Party on steroids. Conservatives will dismiss it as the petulant whine of a "victim" who couldn't hack Capitalism.

The tortured manifesto cannot be properly labeled as "left-" or "right-wing." Rather, it's a non-partisan screed against problems roiling the Republic - and Stack's head - for years. A crippled economy dominated by political and corporate potentates. A campaign and election system rotted by special interests and money. Byzantine tax laws that baffle small business owners and individuals.

History animates Stack's crime and screed. His crime consciously mimics 9/11. And his suicide note recalls the Great Depression.

"I remember reading about the stock market crash before the "great" depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows when they realized they screwed up and lost everything," Stack wrote. "Isn't it ironic how far we've come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn't have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it's "business-as-usual". Now when the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for the mistakes... isn't that a clever, tidy solution."

Then Stack agonizes over a more recent recession:

"Return to the early '80s, and here I was off to a terrifying start as a 'wet-behind-the-ears' contract software engineer... and two years later, thanks to the fine backroom, midnight effort by the sleazy executives of Arthur Andersen (the very same folks who later brought us Enron and other such calamities) and an equally sleazy New York Senator (Patrick Moynihan), we saw the passage of 1986 tax reform act with its section 1706..."

Like much political protest today, Stack's rant is a sloppy kiss to populism: It confuses and conflates its Washington rage with its Wall Street rage. While the two forces clearly share their bed - or trough, more accurately - their problems and wrongdoings are not the same.

Those who hurl indiscriminate anger at Washington with indiscriminate anger at corporate America obscure the very nature of - and the viable solutions to - what shackles them. Yes, pizza might aggravate an elderly man's heart disease, but banning pizza from his diet will neither eliminate his heartburn nor his heart disease. There's a difference between a problem, its mere irritants, its causes, its symptoms, and its effects.

The violent, inchoate, widespread anger at Washington and Wall Street often confuses all of those.

Pointing out his lack of savings and retirement options, Stack complains of once "living on peanut butter and bread (or Ritz crackers when I could afford to splurge) for months at a time."

It's deja vu: Stack echoes a discharged GI who blew up the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In his hometown newspaper in Lockport, New York, Timothy McVeigh lamented in the winter of 1992: "The American Dream of the middle class has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling just to buy next week's groceries."


Our collective -- popular, governmental, corporate, media -- brushoff of economic hardship and anti-social vitriol is tragic. Add to McVeigh's, or Stack's, economic anxiety a dash of nativism, government bashing, and (well-placed) resentment over Wall Street or bailouts, and you have a recipe for even more violence.

"The recent presidential puppet GW Bush and his cronies in their eight years certainly reinforced for all of us that this criticism rings equally true for all of the government. Nothing changes unless there is a body count (unless it is in the interest of the wealthy sows at the government trough). In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws..." wrote Stack. "By not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at "big brother" while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won't continue; I have just had enough ... Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."

Stack explicitly cites history in thought, word, and deed: the Great Depression, the 1986 Tax reform Act, the 1980s Savings and Loan Crisis and "bailout," the Oklahoma City Bombings, the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the recent 2008 bailout. The rest of us should take heed: America suffers from amnesia. We ignore the historical, yet recurring, events and lessons that would make millions of our lives more financially, emotionally, and physically secure.

Deplorable though he might be, Stack is not quite a "random bad apple." His act might be uncommon, but his jumbled populism is not. His crime is in no way excusable; but it spotlights a larger problem that both political and corporate elites like to caricature or dismiss: visceral populist anger. In turn, the likes of Stack often misdirect or poorly define the contours of Washington and Wall Street misbehavior.

Stack may have suffered from mental illness, but he is also very much a symptom of this nation and the times.

We ignore - or dismiss as "lunatic" - his screed, suicide, and crime at our own risk.