Within hours after Joe Stack had crashed his plane into the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas, the American political class began a mad scramble to figure out what political ideology had motivated his action. Stack was a terrorist, most agreed, but was he a conservative terrorist or a liberal terrorist?
Parsing the suicide note Stack had left behind, liberals posted blogs highlighting those phrases that resonated with the anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. Conservative bloggers, in contrast, emphasized the left-wing character of Stack's assault on organized religion, big corporations, and the crony-corruption of the administration of President George W. Bush. Putting these two contrasting interpretations together, some neutral commentators concluded that Stack's self-described "rant" was a strange mixture of Left and Right, so that it was uncertain which ideological motive was dominant in Stack's mind when he decided to launch his kamikaze attack on the American federal government.
Most of those who were trying to pin an ideological label on Stack clearly aimed to discredit their own ideological adversaries. Whatever ideology was behind the attack clearly had something terribly wrong about it. But this whole "blame-game" approach betrayed the limits of our political class to make sense of the world around them.
The blind spot of the political class is that they systematically tend to overrate the importance of their own stock in trade—namely, ideas and ideologies. In their model of human behavior, people first examine various political theories and positions, and, after careful reflection and suitable debate, they adopt whatever political position most agrees with all the facts. Only after this process of rational analysis has been completed do human beings decide to become political actors, supporting whatever policies seem the most reasonable under the circumstances. Now while this may or may not accurately describe how the political class makes up its mind about what political position to adopt, it is an appallingly bad account of how most people decide on political questions. It is also an extremely dangerous account, because it overlooks the immense influence of irrational factors in the shaping of our political ideas, both at the level of the individual and at the level of society—factors like anger, fear, frustration, resentment, and the sense of being wronged.
No ideology motivated Joe Stack to kill himself by flying his plane into the side of a building. He was motivated by rage and his sense of utter helplessness. One of the features of his suicide note that has received scant attention are those passages in which he explains he once sincerely believed in the American dream, and thought that he could achieve it for himself. His intense bitterness was that which comes from a keen sense of betrayal. He believed that the nation that he once trusted to be on his side, and to stand for justice for all, had cruelly deceived him and all the other little guys, like himself, who have been marginalized and ignored, who have no say in how they are governed. Worse, the government he grew up trusting had become a mere tool of corporate greed, forcing ordinary hard-working Americans to bail out the filthy rich or conspiring to force them to cough up money to fill the coffers of insurance companies, under the specious guise of healthcare reform. President Obama is as bad as President Bush. Liberal Democrats in power are as corrupt and uncaring as conservative Republicans. The political system is rigged. It cannot be amended or ameliorated through normal channels. "Violence ... is the only answer."
This is no ideology—it is a cry of visceral anguish. To attempt to use Stack to score points against one's political opponents is symptomatic of a profound lack of seriousness. Equally frivolous is the attempt to dismiss Stack as a lone nutcase when already many Americans have hailed him as a folk hero. What he wrote and what he did has struck a deep, and deeply disturbing, chord in the psyche of many other Americans who, rightly or wrongly, feel a similar sense of having been duped and betrayed by a country that they had been brought up to love and to trust. These people share no set ideology. They are just mad as hell, and they are ready to applaud any act, even acts of violence, so long as it is a way of saying, "We aren't going to take it anymore."
In America today there are many other Joe Stacks who have given up on the American dream, who place no hopes in our political system and no faith in anyone's ideology. Increasingly, like Joe Stack, they see the only solution in violence. Like the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, who also ended his disappointed life in an act of suicide, attention must be paid to these men and women. Those who refuse to take them seriously or who deride them as wingnuts, like those who think that they can be corralled into the Republican or Democratic camp, are all equally kidding themselves. We are sitting on a volcano whose ultimate explosive power cannot be adequately gauged by the minor tremors and occasional eruptions.