P1 Interactive: What is terrorism?

Centennial Olympic Park, Oklahoma City, Fort Hood... the Unabomer, the Weathermen, the Army of God... terrorism in the United States is most often the work of domestic attackers, not foreign ones

On Thursday, February 18th at a little before ten in the morning local time in Austin, Texas, a small plane laden with high-octane aviation fuel crashed into a building well-known to house the criminal investigation division of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Mere moments after the story flashed onscreen in the PoliceOne newsroom — and after confirming that the building was not the one in which several of my personal friends work — I had a gut feeling that it would turn out to be a lone-wolf domestic terrorist, probably Caucasian, probably middle-aged, and probably disgruntled at the government.

I pretty much nailed that one dead-square center.

Smoke billows from a building after 53-year-old Joseph Stack piloted his small plane into it on Feb. 18, 2010. The building, which is in the same office complex as the Austin offices of the FBI, houses several government agencies, including the criminal investigation division of the IRS. (AP Photo)
Smoke billows from a building after 53-year-old Joseph Stack piloted his small plane into it on Feb. 18, 2010. The building, which is in the same office complex as the Austin offices of the FBI, houses several government agencies, including the criminal investigation division of the IRS. (AP Photo)

It wasn’t long before we learned that the pilot, 53-year-old Joseph Stack, had killed both himself and a 67-year-old IRS employee named Vernon Hunter when he intentionally crashed his single-engine airplane into the building. We soon learned that Stack had torched his own home earlier in the day — a move one can conclude was intended to destroy evidence.

Not long after that information was given, we were told that Stack was the probable author of a seven-page, anti-government manifesto.

Stack’s online tirade begins: “If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, ‘Why did this have to happen?’ The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time.”

He says later on: “I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be whitewashed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt...” and “...nothing changes unless there is a body count.”

Then he says, “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well,” and finally, “...violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

None of this surprised me in the slightest — each new revelation aligned with my suspicions in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

But then, CNN reported something that shocked me: They said that DHS was not considering Stack’s attack an act of terror.

Um, what? Were they seeing the same TV images I was looking at? There was work to be done, so I set aside my frustration at that particular chestnut and focused on the job at hand.

Then, my friends at STRATFOR issued a thought-provoking brief that led with the following:

WITHIN HOURS AFTER a Piper Cherokee PA-28-236 single engine plane crashed into the office building in Austin, Texas, that houses the local Internal Revenue Service (IRS) criminal investigation unit, federal authorities announced that the act was not terrorism. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a statement saying that they “have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity.” We at STRATFOR disagree with this assessment, and apparently so does the U.S. government. According to USA PATRIOT Act, title VIII, section 802, terrorism is the following:

“[An] act of terrorism means any activity that (A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and (B) appears to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.”

Personally, I think Stack is both a criminal and a terrorist. He torched his house (arsonist = criminal) and then he flew his plane into a government building (suicide bomber = terrorist).

But we don’t all think alike and we don’t all come to the same conclusions (if we all think the same then only one person is thinking). I wanted to know what my friends and colleagues thought about the matter, so I talked with a bunch of them today, and what follows is a compilation of their opinions.

But what do you think? Join the conversation — add your comments below.

PoliceOne SWAT Contributor Glenn French kicks off our online discussion, saying, “As I watched the newscast on this event unfold yesterday, a federal agency indicated to the press that this event wasn't a terrorist incident and it appears that this was an isolated incident. However, the news agency I was watching had already reported on the pilot’s twisted dissertation about his views of the IRS and killing people for his personal cause that he posted on the Internet ... I understand what occurred here, these federal agencies are concerned about creating fear and chaos in the American people. It reminds how the Detroit Bomber was handled ... The U.S. Government needs to come to terms with terrorism and the fact that it exists in this county and isn't going away. Once they do this then our fight to combat domestic and international terrorism will have a stable platform to build upon ... We may be the greatest country in history but we can learn from other countries around the world that don't hide and shield such acts from its public.”

Tom Marx, an as yet unannounced new PoliceOne Contributor, says, “Grabbing someone and ending their life because they treated you badly or stole from you is not terrorism. Even the destruction of property (attacking a building or a place of business) because the company it houses cheated or stole from you is not terrorism. These things are reactions; albeit not rational ones but reactions none-the-less. However, when that frustration and such actions are part of an attempt to not just strike out or strike back but instead are an attempt to coerce or alter the actions of others and/or of the institutions that employ them or that they represent, then, if it affects the government or even just the public as a whole and that was the intent if the perpetrator, I think it could be considered terrorism.”

Tom Burrell, a Waterways Conservation Officer with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and also the PoliceOne Maritime Law Enforcement Contributor, says that terrorism is “any act committed within the United States, or against U.S. citizens or interests abroad, by an individual or group who may or may not be supported by a legitimate foreign nation, with the intended purpose being (A) infliction of mass casualties against civilian persons or military personal in a non-combat setting; (B) disruption of essential governmental functions and services; or (C) spreading of mass panic within population.

PoliceOne Contributor Kyle E. Lamb, who, it should be noted has some significant experience in the war on terror, counters, “I think of terrorism as a calculated use of violence that is directed at innocent civilians, usually for political or religious means. Was this act for political or religious reasons? I don’t think so, judging from the fella’s suicide note. It was for personal reasons due to taxes and anger directed at a government agency.”

PoliceOne SWAT Columnist Dan Marcou says, “I would go to the Patriot Act for the definition of terrorism. When Joseph Stack burned his house, he committed a criminal act of ‘Domestic Violence.’ When he targeted U.S. Government officials with his plane in a homicidal act that he knew would cost him his life, in order to make a political statement out of rage, it was an act of ‘Domestic Terrorism.’ If he would not have done it and would have just called the IRS and threatened to do it, he would most certainly have been charged with ‘Making Terrorist Threats’.”

Street Survival Instructor Dave Smith says that terrorism is “any act — whether consummated or not, designed to fear or intimidate a people towards a social or political end!”

Her tongue thrust squarely in her cheek, PoliceOne Columnist Betsy Brantner Smith responded, “There is no such thing ... only ‘man-made disasters’.”

PoliceOne Products Columnist Lindsey Bertomen says that terrorism “is a criminal act consummated by a person or group which uses a threat of harm or intentional act of harm to achieve an aspect of a personal or political agenda. Terrorism can include violent acts or threats of violent acts on citizens or destruction of property to coerce the victim or victims into satisfying their goal or an aspect of their goal. Terrorism can have a political, ideological, religious, or economic significance to the perpetrator that may or may not be recognized by the victim. Most acts of terrorism are acts of cowardice on an innocent population. Now that terrorism has a rudimentary definition, it should be clear that the innocuous definition ‘man-made disaster’ or ‘human-caused disaster’ which is facilitated by an intentional act, is a misnomer. This misnomer only perpetuates a terrorist problem. Only a resilient society can combat terrorism.”

Chris Heisler, a friend of PoliceOne as well as president and founder of the Honor Network and the United States Honor Flag, concludes: “I think that the definition of terrorism as determined by and according to USA PATRIOT Act, title VIII, section 802 is sufficiently descriptive and fairly accurate. Even when defined by other sources there is no major disagreement on what constitutes terrorism. I think that the true point or issue here is the perhaps premature utterance and misstatement by authorities that the deliberate act by the involved offender, crashing of the plane into an office building in Austin, Texas, was not terrorism was not terrorism. Federal authorities (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) are quoted as taking this position (not terrorism) within hours of the incident. Perhaps they should have further qualified their position and statement distinguishing that this was not a suspected act of ‘foreign terrorism.’ In my opinion, the incident was in fact an act of Domestic Terrorism, albeit on a small scale.”

What do you think? Add your comments below.

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