Joe Stack Flies Plane into I.R.S. Building in Suicide Attack

So, do you want to hear what I think of Joe Stack flying his plane into the IRS building?

Every year, the IRS Oversight Board conducts what it calls a “Taxpayer Attitude Survey” in which it hires a polling company to ask a set of questions to a randomly-phoned set of 1,000 households. The latest survey results were released several days back.

There are a few questions that use loaded phrases to elicit answers that are in favor of compliance with tax laws, a few questions that ask people to rank their favorite enforcement priorities, some questions about what sort of IRS services they think are most important and what they think of current IRS services, some questions to gauge public opinion about possible IRS funding increases (which seem mostly designed to help the agency craft its pleas to Congress at budget-time), and a couple of miscellaneous ones.

The loaded questions are things like (emphasis mine):

  • How much, if any, do you think is an acceptable amount to cheat on your income taxes?
  • [Do you agree that] it is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes?
  • [Do you agree that] everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable?

Predictably, people overwhelmingly report that cheating is bad and fair shares are good. Which tells us little, but makes for good press releases touting the culture of compliance that the government relies on.

(The one non-loaded question in this category is “taxpayers should just have to pay what they feel is a fair amount.” Last year, 11% of those polled “completely” agreed with that statement, another 15% merely agreed with it, 31% “mostly” disagreed, and 41% “completely” disagreed.)

A more telling “taxpayer attitude survey” may be the one informally conducted by TIGTA when it counts the number of violent threats against IRS employees it investigates.

In the past four years, there appears to have been a “steady, upward trend” in the number of threats against IRS employees, said an official with the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration.

I don’t recommend violent defense against or reprisals against IRS employees.

That said, if you are going to burn your house down and fly your plane into a building, the IRS building is an excellent choice of targets. As much as I don’t think Joe Stack’s recent suicide attack was anything like a good idea, an IRS building in flames strikes me as much less of a public nuisance than the same building prekindled. But really: don’t. Play the video game instead.

My feelings about righteous violence are complicated. I haven’t been able to reduce them to a philosophical system the way that confident pacifists of various flavors, Christian non-resistants, or libertarian non-aggressors have. It has been many years since I last felt justified in being physically violent toward someone, and I don’t think it did much but provide a cathartic outlet for my rage, which doesn’t much improve the incident in my memory of it with the passing of time. I don’t own a firearm, and don’t much go in for revolutionary fantasies of people rising up and storming the castle or of a small vanguard setting things to rights one bomb at a time. On the other hand, I think there’s probably a time and a place for well-applied violence, both when it is the best, most effective, and most just path toward a good end, and because some smug, criminal sons of bitches need to get their faces stomped in the dirt for the satisfaction of their betters.

There’s where we are now, in this dark age in which mendacity, thievery, murder, torture, and the like are enshrined into respected institutions and their practitioners are laureled and praised. And then there’s where we want to be: in some barely-imaginable future in which people have too much self-respect to put up with such barbaric nonsense.

Some folks think the key to getting from point A to point B is fear. If the thieves and murderers and what-not know that an armed populace of good and honest people is watching them and won’t let them get away with their shenanigans, pretty soon nobody will stick their necks out and try to get away with something they shouldn’t. To this end, it makes good sense to make sure IRS agents, for instance, know that pursuing their line of work isn’t safe.

I don’t buy it. Fear only serves the good when the good are more frightening than the evil, and how likely is that, really, in the world we currently live in? The day that good people are numerous enough and powerful enough to out-frighten the government will probably be several days after they no longer have any need to. The next thing that comes on the scene that’s more frightening and imposing than the government will probably be worse than it, too.

But while I don’t consider Stack’s actions to have been wise, neither were those of Vernon Hunter. I find it hard to shed any tears over the death of the 30-year IRS employee, a “proud” Vietnam veteran with 20 years of Army service under his belt, whom Stack killed when he flew his plane into the IRS building. Saying “he didn’t write the tax laws” is no more excuse than saying of Stack “he didn’t build the plane.” And yet, I feel for his family and I wish he hadn’t been killed.

It would be easier for me to explain my position were I a pacifist, a non-resistant, or someone who had signed on to the non-aggression principle as my North Star. I could then argue forward from one of these principles, and you could take it or leave it based on whether my logic was sound and whether my principles were also yours.

Even if I were short-term pragmatic, it would be easier. I could say, “the time is not yet right for a violent uprising; such individual acts of retribution against government agents are counter-productive,” and many folks would nod their heads and agree or at least understand where I was coming from.

But actually I’m tempted to agree that someone who is victimized by the IRS is in fact fully justified in defending himself or herself with violence against the actual IRS agents who are the agents of this victimization (justified, mind you, not necessarily wise). And I think that short-term pragmatism of the sort I described is sometimes wise but often just a mask for a sort of endless inertia where fantasies of an eventual “right time” are substitutes for the sort of forthright action that takes the lead.

But my instincts lead me to an even weirder position that I have a hard time justifying: that from a long term pragmatic perspective, even if violence were effective in helping us right the scales of justice and reach our short-term goals, that the same violence would end up salting the earth underneath us, and we’d find that even in the wake of a bloody revolution that succeeded beyond our wildest hopes, all the pain of it put us more or less back where we started from, or worse. Not only is violence not the only answer, it’s not even an answer. There’s no answer, I suspect, but the difficult, frustratingly slow, nigh impossible task of trying to foment a revolution of values that will make a revolution of blood and fire unnecessary or, anyway, merely ancillary.

Such a thing is not just a pipe dream. There have been revolutions of this sort in history (consider, for instance, the emergence and triumph of abolitionism in the span of a single generation in the British empire).

It does require a patience and faith and a weird love for the human project, since, unlike bloody vengeance, which you can imagine completing in your lifetime with the decapitation of the King or what-have-you, this sort of project will inevitably be unfinished at your death. It requires hard work. It requires the same fierce determination, kamikaze fury, righteous anger, and eagerness to sacrifice that might lead someone to fly a plane into a building, but without the boom at the end, without the satisfaction of being able to think “well, this time I’ll have the last word,” without the catharsis of blood. I think it may be the best hope we’ve got.