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A quiet victory over terrorism

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By now, you already know that an anti-tax activist crashed his plane into an IRS building yesterday morning. The local authorities and the White House quickly said that this wasn't terrorism, even though what they meant was that it wasn't Muslim terrorism. This has annoyed a lot of liberals, but I think Matt Yglesias has the right take on it:

Instead of complaining about the hypocrisy involved in not trying to whip people into a fit of terror and madness about this incident, I think it makes more sense to congratulate everyone on handling this in a calm and sensible manner. The key point, that all authorities seem to agree on, is that while this is a serious crime and a genuinely Bad Thing To Have Happen, that you need to put the likelihood of this sort of incident into a broader context. Simply put, the odds of “death by disgruntled anti-tax activist flying an airplane into your office” are extremely small and it’s extremely difficult to think of cost-effective and efficacious methods of ensuring that this never happens again. Off the top of my head, this looks to me like a demonstration of the desirability of better mental health services in the United States, but that’s something that I would think was true one way or the other.

[A. Joseph] Stack’s stated purpose for undertaking the attack was to try to prompt a counterproductive overreaction: “I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.” It’s smart, then, that as a country we’re responding to his terrorism by trying to avoid counterproductive overreactions. But of course this is also Osama bin Laden’s goal and it’s also appropriate to respond to Islamist political violence in a similar spirit.

For what it's worth, if the pilot had somehow survived, he should've been read his Miranda rights and tried in a civilian court. He should not have been tortured. These people are small and we -- and our traditions and values -- are big. They lose when we remember that, and they win when we forget it. Yesterday, they lost. An act of terrorism was committed, but we were not terrorized.

Photo credit: The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  February 19, 2010; 12:27 PM ET
 
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Comments

"The local authorities and the White House quickly said that this wasn't terrorism, even though what they meant was that it wasn't Muslim terrorism."

No, what they meant was that it wasn't terrorism. Generally, the current administration doesn't regard anything as terrorism. Fort Hood? Not terrorism. Christmas Day Bomber? Not terrorism.

Technically, the anti-tax guy was a domestic terrorist. I understand why the administration might not want to call him that, but that's what he was.

"For what it's worth, if the pilot had somehow survived, he should've been read his Miranda rights and tried in a civilian court"

I agree, because he was a citizen of the United States. I don't see extending Miranda rights to enemy combatants as being either a legal requirement or a moral obligation, or a strategic benefit. It's not something that makes our teeth whiter or radical Islamists like us better. However, this guy was not an enemy combatant or a foreign national. He was a crazy citizen of the United States, and, had he lived, should have been treated us such.

"He should not have been tortured."

Even if there was a nuclear bomb ticking at some IRS office somewhere in the country, and only Jack Bauer and an electric drill could get to the bottom of it in time to save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives? And we're talking the lives of government workers here.

Jack Bauer would not be impressed.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 19, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I think the folks at the IRS need to stop and ask themselves what they did to cause this. Or, at least they should establish beyond a doubt that this act of terrorism was the result of the terrorists extreme poverty, brought on by the imperialist nature of the United States. :)

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 19, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

You know, it's always boggled my mind that conservatives hold up Jack Bauer as this paragon of awesomeness. (Kevin, I'm pretty sure you were being ironic, so if so it doesn't apply to you). The events of 24 are pretty much the most terrible time in American history, with the FBI, CIA, and military unable to prevent horrible tragedies. Haven't something like three nuclear weapons been detonated on US soil? I think they've also gone through something like four or five presidents in a period of, what, ten years? A former president assassinated?

If conservatives want to to Jack Bauer's Earth-2 while the rest of us stay here on Earth-1 I'm prepared to let them, saying, "Are you sure? Okaaaaay."

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

""Generally, the current administration doesn't regard anything as terrorism. .... Christmas Day Bomber? Not terrorism""

Kevin, I don't know whether you are ignorant, have a basic problem with honesty, or simply think that mindlessly repeating right wing talking points is the best way to draw attention to yourself and make you feel better about your advocacy for the failed belief system that is movement cobservativism, but most everything you have said in your comment was false.

Posted by: tyromania | February 19, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Kevin's usually pretty reasonable, but I have to say I'm a little stumped by his comment. I'm happy to reconsider if there's some evidence, but I don't recall anyone saying that the Underpants Bomber isn't a terrorist, just that he should be charged and convicted through the criminal courts, as other terrorists have been.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

yeah, the whole "Obama won't say the words war or terrorism" meme has been thoroughly debunked. It's a silly talking point.

Posted by: Quant | February 19, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I like how you get to tell us what Obama really means. The local authorities and the White House quickly said that this wasn't terrorism, even though what they meant was that it wasn't Muslim terrorism.
Either your right and Obama is a liar, or your wrong and this was just some dude who hates the IRS. Which is it?

Posted by: obrier2 | February 19, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I know you know this but the whole reason that this is frustrating for liberals in the first place is that it isn't any kind of principle that's leading to this (correct) response. It's the fact that the perp was white and motivated by a twisted and extreme form of libertarianism, rather than a twisted and extreme form of Islam. Nothing has been learned and the next time anything happens (or fails to happen, for that matter) the hysteria will return in full force.

The world would be far better off if we responded to all terrorism this way, but you and I both know that isn't going to happen.

JACK BAUER JACK BAUER JACK BAUER JACK BAUER JACK BAUER

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | February 19, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

"Kevin, I'm pretty sure you were being ironic, so if so it doesn't apply to you"

Thanks. I was joking with the thing about Jack Bauer. Torture is a bad idea.

@Tyro, sheesh, lighten up, dude. I just assumed, because he was Mirandized, the administration didn't regard him as a terrorist.

To quote Obama: "Now, do these folks [terrorist detainees] deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter down the block? Of course not."

http://wcbstv.com/national/Barack.Obama.Dick.2.965981.html

Perhaps I was just confused. Or, I inferred something. And you know what happens when you infer.

And there is plenty of evidence that the Fort Hood attack is not regarded as terrorism. Google "fort hood not terrorism" and see for yourself.

And Nidal Hasan (fort Hood shooter) was in contact with the same radical Imam (Anwar al-Awlaki) that Abdulmutallab was. In one case--the one where the guy managed to blow up his own pants--it's evidence of terrorism? Yet in the other, where the guy managed to kill 13 people and injure 29, isn't terrorism? Because that is the official position on the Fort Hood shootings.

Okee-dokee.

@Quant: While I didn't say anything specifically about Obama not using the words "war on terror", the official Obama administration position is that the "Global War on Terror" or "Long War" (a term I don't recall having really heard in the first place) are out. The favored term, as of March 2009, was "overseas contingency operations". Don't know if that's still the case, but the idea that it's just a silly talking point with no basis in fact is, um, silly. In my opinion. Which is worth approximately what you paid for it.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 19, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Of course it was terrorism, certainly if one goes by the modern definition of terrorism as defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law, © 1996.

But what, exactly, gives rise to this destructive, murderous impulse? Human history holds some clues; the economic and political profitability of fearmongering hold yet more. At our blog, I posit that terrorism itself is a form of mental illness:

http://www.cogitamusblog.com/2010/02/the-revolution-of-revolution-and-the-rewriting-of-its-violent-and-tragic-symphony.html

Posted by: litbrit | February 19, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

beautiful sentiments, ezra
and litbrit.

i just cant think about so many bad and crazed things as are happening, all at once.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKIjsWUbhVM&feature=related

Posted by: jkaren | February 19, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

if we lived in a magical land where gov't worked, then we should be patting ourselves on the back. Since that is not the land we live in, we should be annoyed that the political upside to this is not being utilized. Also, I think there is an important lesson being missed here: extreme groups develop people who commit acts of terrorism but that doesn't mean everyone in the group are terrorists. I don't think all extreme anti-tax people are terrorists, just like all fundamentalist muslisms aren't terrorists.

Posted by: Levijohn | February 19, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

@me: "Even if there was a nuclear bomb ticking at some IRS office somewhere in the country, and only Jack Bauer and an electric drill could get to the bottom of it in time to save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives?"

Come on. Nobody is going to take the Jack Bauer part seriously and point out that that is a false choice? That we've never been in that situation, and that torture has never been used to extract information out a suspect to prevent an imminent large scale disaster? That most "enhanced interrogation" has been about tactical and strategic advantage, not foiling a specific, imminent plot?

Somebody is falling down on the job. Just sayin'.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 19, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

After 9/11, I was afraid to work in a building, or perhaps to fly on an airliner. Terror -- that's what terrorism does.

After Austin, I'm thinking I don't want to work for the IRS, and I'm actually hoping many other people will decide they feel the same way.

As for terror, well, I'm just not feeling that.

Posted by: cpurick | February 19, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

obrier, the President *can* be wrong about terminology, and frankly, the definition of the term "terrorism" isn't so clear that there can't be some disagreement. Personally, I think this guy was a non-military actor attacking civilians and attempting to compel a change in policy by instilling fear in both the populace and the government. To me, that qualifies as terrorism. I still think that if he had lived he should have been Mirandized and arrested, but that's not inconsistent with him being a terrorist.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I just can't agree. If you're making a general argument against overreaction, then fine, point made. But the fact is that we do use the term "terrorism" to refer to a certain kind of criminal act, and if we want to avoid double standards, its use needs to be consistent.

Yesterday, a man with a clear agenda deliberately and violently attacked a symbolic government location full of civilian workers with the self-proclaimed intent of sending a political message. If we aren't going to call that terrorism, then perhaps we shouldn't use the word at all.

Posted by: jwellington1 | February 19, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

"For what it's worth, if the pilot had somehow survived, he should've been read his Miranda rights and tried in a civilian court."

Within a few hours after the crash, our press had identified the man, where he lived, had spoken to his neighbors, had found the guy's online manifesto, knew when he began writing it and how many times he had edited it. If we could gather that sort of intelligence that quickly about Jihadists From Afar, I might agree with you.

And by the way, about the smallness of the odds? I sure wish Yglesias had been there to tell me it was no big thang as I was frantically trying to contact my Austinite daughter who works in a building that looks very much like that one yesterday morning. It's terrorism alright.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 19, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I agree with reading him his rights, just like the undies bomber. I'm just sick of Erza tell us what obama said / meant, because he doesn't agree with him. And if Eraz knows what obama really means even though it's not what obama said, obama is a lair. Kind of like saying: I'm against a mandate and I won't raise taxes on anyone making 200K a year.

Posted by: obrier2 | February 19, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Nobody's saying "It's no big thang." Why would you think that's what people are saying? The argument is that we should not react as a society to attacks like these with hysteria. Terrorism attempts to cause terror. It's a good thing that we're avoiding that reaction this time. That doesn't mean it's not a tragedy or terrifying for the people involved.

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

"Yesterday, a man with a clear agenda deliberately and violently attacked a symbolic government location full of civilian workers with the self-proclaimed intent of sending a political message."

Actually, those civilians were *government* workers. With few exceptions, the rest of us were perfectly safe. Are you worried that the next attack could be you? Because that's what terrorism's supposed to do. This message is a little different.

Violent, criminal protest, and murder. Not terrorism.

Posted by: cpurick | February 19, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Non-military government employees are still civilians. How many degrees of removal do you have to get to before it becomes terrorism? Federally funded clinic? Elementary school that receives federal funding?

Posted by: MosBen | February 19, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I'm one of those old-thinking people who actually believes that the meanings of words are important. In that context, terrorism is action to create fear or terror; the terrorist hopes that the reaction will be larger in proportion to the act. Random acts of anger, regardless of the numbers of people injured, property destroyed, and so on do not automatically constitute terrorism. But when a society changes its behavior in response to some act, then the terrorizing effect has taken hold. The determination that yesterday's act in Texas was not terrorism makes sense from the point of view that the act and seemingly associated words on alleged perpetrator did not constitute some stratagem to terrorize.

Why is that a hard concept to swallow? As a citizen I chafe at the rush to judgment that followed 9/11/2001. We have altered our ways of doing things, our ways of being. In many ways, we have become a more insular people, less trusting and less believing in change and growth. Based on the apparent anger in some comments here on the Post, we've got some social issues to resolve as well. In some ways, then, the efforts of real terrorists had lasting effects. Many Americans are still afraid of terror attacks. I'd think we would want to be very careful in responding to these events and not fall into the very behavior true terrorists seek.

Posted by: Jazzman7 | February 19, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

"Nobody's saying "It's no big thang." Why would you think that's what people are saying?"

I thought it was what Iglesias was saying because he said "you need to put the likelihood of this sort of incident into a broader context. Simply put, the odds of 'death by disgruntled anti-tax activist flying an airplane into your office' are extremely small"

But anyway. What I really object to in the Iglesias piece is his attempt to unfavorably compare and contrast the calm reaction to what was almost immediately apparent was the one off act of a single crazy person to the reaction to the acts of organized terrorists. They're not the same things at all, no matter how small the odds of being a victim.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 19, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

If this plane guy's name had Mohammed in it, CPAC would've turned into a anti-terrorism convention in a heartbeat. The fact that the guy doesn't appear to be Muslim means that the attack wasn't terrorism?

Posted by: ATLGuy | February 19, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

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