Monday, February 22, 2010

Teabag Terrorism?

Kerry wanted to have a discussion about whether Joseph Stack's suicide bombing of the IRS building in Austin last week constituted a terrorist attack. This is a semantic question (although do NOT think that this means it is trivial), what exactly do we mean by "an act of terrorism"?

The case in favor of it would be based on what we call an ostensive definition -- that is, defining a word X by pointing at clear examples that satisfy the sense of X and saying that "this and everything like it are X." We can point to the events of 9/11 and the attack in Oklahoma City as clear examples of terrorism and argue that there are important similarities with this example. In the Austin and 9/11 cases, you have individuals who had great antipathy for the policies of the American government and then used airplanes as weapons against notable buildings associated with the government in an attempt to cause death and destruction. Like the Oklahoma City case, it was someone tied to violent radicals on the American right who see themselves as the sole owners of "real America" and who see the democratic process as a threat when it does not give them what they want. We see these people charged by fringe and not so fringe conservative elements who preach hate and violence. Oklahoma City was clearly designed by these folks to send a message to the government by attacking a prominent federal building. This happened in this case as well. On these grounds, there does seem to be a case that this is terrorism in the way these other cases are.

The case against calling it terrorism is in the intent. It seems to be a necessary condition of an act of terrorism to cause terror, fear of a continuing wave of retributive attacks if a policy direction is not changed. the bombing of abortion clinics and the Atlanta Olympic Games by Eric Rudolph, for example, would be clear home-grown terrorism of this sort. The Austin case, however, did not seem to be designed to cause fear of death, but death itself. It seemed to be less associated with a centralized plan to undermine confidence in the government's ability to keep its citizens safe, than an attempt to murder federal employees because Stack did not like the mission of the agency. This was someone who was clearly connected with the violent rhetoric of the right, but it is not clear that this is part of a coordinated effort to create an atmosphere of fear. One might be able to argue that it was treason, that it was an act of war in a sense, but according to this line, one wouldn't call it terrorism.

To be honest, I don't know which is right. What do you think? Was it an act of terrorism?