Joe Stack IRS attack: All-American rage?

Fury over taxation and the IRS is more common – and honorable – in the US than elsewhere. That may help explain why some empathize with Joe Stack.

Courtesy of Pam Parker/AP/File
Joe Stack, the American who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, was enraged over taxation.

Joe Stack’s antitax rage may be a uniquely American kind of anger.

Mr. Stack attacked the US Internal Revenue Service by flying his plane into its Austin, Texas, office last Thursday. He left behind a lengthy, disjointed screed in which he complained about his failure to find work, the crimes of corporations, and, most of all, his hatred of the IRS, with which he had been feuding for years.

This kind of fury about taxation is far more common in the US than in most of the rest of the world, says Mark Potok, director of The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

Europe has problems with its own brands of extremists, such as neo-Nazis. But Europeans are used to turning to government to solve their problems, so government institutions themselves seldom become targets of symbolic violence.

The US, founded in a revolt against George III and British tyranny, has a far different cultural heritage, says Mr. Potok.

"'Take your central government and shove it’ – that’s where our nation essentially began,” says Potok, one of the leading US experts on radical right activities.

Some on the fringe of the right have rushed to declare Stack a hero. White supremacist Web forums have been filled with comments that hold him up as an icon of resistance to tyranny, for instance.

The Facebook page “The philosophy of Joe Stack” is full of comments defending his actions and ideas – as well as comments branding him a terrorist.

Potok says the jury is still out on whether Stack will become the martyr of the antitax movement, joining Timothy McVeigh, the Branch Davidians of the Waco siege, and others in the pantheon of extremist heroes.

Much may depend on biographical information that has yet to surface. If Stack seems more sad loser than avenging warrior, the right will be quick to disown him.

“I think he will remain a hero to the very edge of the radical right, but many others in the extremist movement may reject him,” says Potok.

Right-wing extremist violence in general, and antitax violence in particular, appears to be on the rise.

Threats against IRS employees have gone up steadily in the past five years, from 834 in 2005 to 1,014 in 2009, according to J. Russell George, Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.

An increase in IRS collection activities, combined with a declining economy and a general sense of unease, has “caused people to react in ways we all hoped they would not,” Mr. George told the AP.

Meanwhile, the National Treasury Employees Union is denouncing remarks made by Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, in which the congressmen calls the attack "sad," but adds that the IRS is "unnecessary" and that abolishing the agency would mean "a happy day for America."

National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen Kelley noted that IRS employee Vernon Hunter died in the attack.

"Rep. King's comments are inappropriate and show an appalling lack of compassion over [Hunter's] death, as well as a lack of respect for the lives of federal employees nationwide," said Ms. Kelley in a statement.

• AP material was used in this story.

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