Joe Stack, Janet Napolitano and the definition of terrorism


Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano was on the Diane Rehm show earlier this week. Part of the interview focused on Joe Stack, the man who flew his small plane into the IRS building Austin, and Napolitano — who clearly wanted to avoid calling Stack a terrorist — offered a slightly odd definition of terrorism.

He used a terrorist tactic… but he’s not necessarily a member of a terrorist group… this is an individual who had his own personal issues and personal motives… he used that [the attack]as a means of carrying out a personal agenda.

[…] The issue is tactics, organization, motives. When you get to the lone wolf, it’s very debatable whether you want to put them in the same bucket [as someone like Timothy McVeigh].

A couple of points here. There’s no universally accepted definition for terrorism, but it’s generally agreed upon that terrorism is the use of terror tactics in service of a political goal. So it’s the tactics themselves — not the degree of organization — that determine if someone is a terrorist.

Second, I’m not sure there’s a clear distinction between Stack and McVeigh, because both were lone wolves. McVeigh had an accomplice, Terry Nichols, but he wasn’t part of any organized terrorist group. Nor was the Unabomber. Nor was John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper. Outside of the 9/11 attacks and the first World Trade Center bombing, most of the terrorist attacks in America over the last few decades were carried out by “lone wolves.”

Readers — what do you think? Should Stack be classified as a terrorist? And more generally — what do you think about the recent anti-government violence, in Austin and at the Pentagon Metro station? Part of a trend?


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  1. AustinMusicGuy on

    There are several interesting points here. While there is no generally accepted definition of “terrorist” (one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist) from the point of view of Janet Napolotano, whose concern is homeland security, I can see why Joe Stack is not a terrorist. He did not represent a threat from an organized group that could harm the US. For everbody else, what difference does it make?

    Joe Stack was a friend of mine. He was not crazy. However, he did lack the ability to handle stress. I think this is why his manifesto is so hard to label left-wing or right-wing. He represented, I believe, the growing population of people who are just angry. I do think this is an alarming trend perpetrated by increase of anger and intolerance of our leaders and media pundits. Our country seems to be under going a generalized fear attack. Guns sales are skyrocketing–and for what? It seems like there are no longer respectful disagreements–you’re either on my side and very angry or you’re a socialist, communist, fascist or something else insulting.

    My fear is that this is a part of a trend.

    I thought Joe was a bit “tightly wound” but otherwise a regular “Joe”. But he chose to end his life with violence and destruction–forever changing the way he is remembered . I wish I had said “chill Joe” when I had the chance.

  2. What about VA Tech and Columbine? Kind of reminsicent of the tactics used in the Mumbai terror attacks.

    The question is, is it the tactic or the intent? Stack used a terroristic tactic and had a goal/objective of conveying his displeasure with the government and political system by using violence. So he fits both criteria.

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