The incident yesterday in Austin, Texas raises questions on what is terrorism or, more specifically, what is domestic terrorism. Reports have varied on whether yesterday’s attack, in which 53 year old Andrew Joseph Stack III – after setting fire to his house crashed a Piper Cherokee PA-28 into a building housing nearly 200 IRS employees, is an act of terrorism. He left behind a suicide note, ranting about taxation in the U.S. and the IRS.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said “”At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity. We continue to gather more information, and are aware there is additional information about the pilot’s history.” The White House gave a more tempered answer, with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs telling reporters, “I am going to wait, though, for all the situation to play out through investigation before we determine what to label it.” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo called the incident “a criminal act by a lone individual.” Meanwhile, Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), a Member of the House Homeland Security who represents the area hit, suggested it was an act of terrorism, saying, “We saw a deliberate and intentional attack against a federal building,” he said. “It’s something that’s exposed a weakness we haven’t seen since 911… that airplanes can fly into buildings.”
For what it is worth, the New York Times ran a piece entitled “In Plane Crash Coverage, Networks Use the Word ‘Terrorism’ With Care,” detailing how the various outlets used and didn’t use the word terrorist and criminal.
So was the incident a terrorist attack?
Under Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act, a person engages in “domestic terrorism” if he commits an act “”dangerous to human life”" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
At face value – the incident would appear to fit within what is a very broad definition of terrorism. Let’s take a look:
- Stack flew his plane into a building — an act that is certainly “dangerous to human life” and “a violation of criminal laws.”
- It is arguable that he was trying to influence the policy of the government or, more likely, affect the conduct of the government by mass destruction. In his suicide note, he says “Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.” He also says, in referring to the IRS and taxation, “I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”
Of course, the bigger question – does it really matter how this incident is labeled? The individual committing the act perished in the attack. The definition of domestic terrorism is relevant mostly to the legal means of gathering information in the investigation, allowing for the seizure of assets, disclosure of educational records, and, ironically, the disclosure of taxpayer information. It also has implications for living individuals who have been labeled as terrorists, including the banning of their ability to handle sensitive biological materials. In this case, the act, however you want to label it, has been committed. Many of the materials above could assumingly be gained through the criminal process.
So does it matter? Besides the statistical notekeeping on incidents, we also must think of the psychological effects of whether the act is criminal or terrorist and how that affects the citizenry’s behavior. There have been studies on these issues and I would welcome comments from those who are experts or more knowledgeable about this effect.
One last note – the incident could also raise questions about the Federal Protective Services, which has long been responsible for the protection of government buildings and has faced numerous personnel, morale, and operating challenges within DHS. To be fair, however, how the FPS could have prevented a plane crash into a building in its current operational mode, is hard to say. In any event, expect hearings and assessments on how to better protect government buildings around the country.