Commentary: Austin pilot Joe Stack gives the right a headache

Well, it's finally official. The Obama administration is a failure.

No, it is not because the health care system is terminally ill with no cure in sight. It's because America has not been kept safe. Last week a man flew an airplane into a government building, killing and injuring more than a dozen people right here on American soil.

At least it is still American soil for now. It happened in Austin, Texas, where the current governor has endorsed the idea of secession in the past.

But while there is no debate for the moment about it being American soil, there is one about whether the man who committed the crime is a terrorist. He was a software engineer named Joe Stack, who had a history of tax disputes with the Internal Revenue Service. To express his frustration with government, Joe decided to fly his plane into the IRS building.

Part of this debate is because he was white, Christian and American. This contrasts with the Christmas Day underpants bomber who was dark, foreign and Muslim. So Stack doesn't fit the profile for some.

One might think that murdering and maiming innocent people just to make a political point is enough to be considered a terrorist, but there is no rush by the left or the right to declare him that.

The Obama administration is withholding judgment until the story exits the news cycle. It doesn't want to open itself to the charge that it failed to protect the homeland.

The right has an even bigger problem. If Stack was a terrorist, what is the legal solution for preventing it from happening again? Indefinitely confine disgruntled software engineers at Guantanamo? Or set up a military tribunal to ensure they are found guilty?

In their efforts to use the war on terror to fabricate fear, Dick Cheney and other politicians on the right have found it is easier to stir up emotions about someone of a different race, nationality and religion. They don't want to raise the alarm about a guy named Joe who played in local bands. Especially since he seems to be part of their base, even though they are don't want to acknowledge it.

The evidence of that was on the Internet before the smoke had stopped coming out of the IRS building. The National Review Online proclaimed Stack was not on their end of the political spectrum. The evidence the NRO offered was that he posted a long rambling manifesto on his Web site before the attack that criticized the Catholic Church, drug and insurance companies. The NRO concluded that anyone who "despises organized religion" and believes there are problems with health care could not be part of the tea party movement.

That brilliant argument would seem to overlook the historical origins of the very phrase "tea party" itself. It wasn't Alice in Wonderland. It was a violent reaction by people who did not like being taxed called the American Revolution. And news articles on the tea partiers rarely omit quotes from them about their guns and their readiness to use them.

The NRO did graciously admit that Stack might not have been motivated by a "leftist ideology." It instead proposed that he really fits into no category.

The problem of the NRO and other opinion makers on the right is that they routinely play to the tea party crowd even though such people in an earlier era would have been wearing sheets. They are desperate to turn tea party angst and anger to their advantage.

This full court suck up even requires politicians to parrot the rhetoric of violence. That was on display last week in Washington for all to see at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Most of the many presidential hopefuls on the right felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to this Mecca of rabid conservatism to try out their applause lines and burnish their extremist credentials.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, for instance, urged the crowd to act like Tiger Woods's wife and "take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government." Radio and TV flimflam artist Glenn Beck told the group the "cancer of progressivism" must be cut out of the system and eradicated.

Texas Governor Rick Perry's past blather about secession is just more of the same invitation to anarchy. Of course all these statesmen would at the same time assert their patriotism with equal ardor. They are unaware that over 200 years ago Samuel Johnson pointed out that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels. About a hundred years later, another observer said no, it was the first.

So if the right were honest, it would embrace Stack as one of their own and acknowledge his accomplishments instead of just making jokes about them as they did at CPAC. It doesn't matter to his victims whether he is defined as a terrorist or not, so why should it to conservatives if there is an electoral edge to be gained.

There is, however, a limit to the number of people who can be scared stupid enough to vote for such politicians. Those that do and are discouraged when their heroes are defeated should remember this. Paying taxes is the price of living in a somewhat fairer, safer and more just society. Those who don't want to pay them always have the option of moving to some tax-free paradise like Iraq or Haiti where the government won't interfere with their lives.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."