[tweetmeme] Last week, frustrated American Joe Stack crashed his small plane into an Austin, Texas building of the Internal Revenue Service, killing himself and at least one other. Though his motives were at first unclear, Stack’s populist manifesto was found online some time later. It detailed a turbulent history with the IRS, as well as his personal grievances with corporate greed and class warfare in the United States. Setting aside the fairly inept, ideological responses across the political spectrum, media outlets went to great lengths to avoid the “t” word: that is, terrorism.
Leading the charges against this inane policy was Glenn Greenwald over at Salon, who called terrorism “the most meaningless and manipulated word.” There was little debate over whether Stack’s grievances were legitimate; instead, the media completely overlooked the act’s obvious comportment with almost every post-9/11 definition of terrorism, including that outlined in the USA PATRIOT Act as domestic actions that “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” and/or “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” All of which sound a lot like Stack, when last I checked.
Nevertheless, Pete Williams, over at NBC, defended the tacit decision to deny the use of “terrorism” with respect to Stack’s actions by saying, “[o]ne, he is an American citizen.” At Fox News, Catherine Herridge said that the act wasn’t “terrorism in that capital T way.” Oh yes–the Muslim way. Investigative reporter Michael Isikoff referred to Stack as “the Austin tax protestor.”
None of this would be particularly pressing were it not for the crucial role of the term “terrorist” in our political debates. Terrorists, after all, don’t deserve political or social rights. They’re detained without due-process rights, tortured, subjected to warrantless surveillance and military commissions, and, of course, have their countries invaded. With the power of the executive branch vested in a single word, one might expect that we would at least attempt to come to a consensus on its meaning. But then we might be able to determine whether government application of the label is accurate enough to warrant the carte blanche with which it’s associated. And that could be problematic in this whole War on Terror.