Friday, February 19, 2010

Joe the Engineer: An angry man in Texas

For one brief white-hot moment, Joseph Andrew Stack — he’s already acquired the American nomenclature for evil, identified with all three of his names, like Lee Harvey Oswald or John Wilkes Booth — became the archetypal American: a doer, an achiever, someone willing to act on an idea and exert the energy to bring it to reality. The fact of that reality, of how he made his simmering passions explode to life, is more of a problem for the rest of us. Those of us who share some of his frustrations. Whether we admit it or not.

A little before 10 a.m. on Thursday, Stack, a 53-year-old software engineer nursing years-long outrage with the Internal Revenue Service, flew a single-engine plane from an airport in Georgetown, Texas, to Austin, about 30 miles away, and then angled the plane into the Echelon Building, a seven-story glass-faced structure where almost 200 IRS employees worked.

Stack died in the crash and/or the subsequent fireball and explosion, as well as at least one person in the building. And Stack didn’t detonate in half measures; he went all the way off, apparently setting fire to his home near the crash site before he flew out of the Georgetown airport.



Not long after the incident, which instantly roused memories of and connections of 9/11, federal officials took note of what appear to be Joe Stack’s last words: a long, rambling but fully articulated (if not reasoned) combination manifesto and suicide note that Stack apparently posted on a Web site earlier in the day.

Stack begins: “If you're reading this, you're no doubt asking yourself, ‘Why did this have to happen?’ The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time. The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn't enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken.”

What follows is a tale of “the storm raging inside my head,” a bildungsroman animated by life as an independent contractor; frustration with the government; outrage with the recent bailouts on behalf of the “thugs and plunderers” in business and the government; personal false starts and thwarted hopes; retirement savings prematurely exhausted; divorce and bitterness; months of peanut butter and Ritz crackers as a staple diet; and the individual powerlessness driving his belief that “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Some, uh, highlights:
“We are all taught as children that without laws there would be no society, only anarchy. Sadly, starting at early ages we in this country have been brainwashed to believe that, in return for our dedication and service, our government stands for justice for all. We are further brainwashed to believe that there is freedom in this place, and that we should be ready to lay our lives down for the noble principals represented by its founding fathers. Remember? One of these was “no taxation without representation.” I have spent the total years of my adulthood unlearning that crap from only a few years of my childhood.” ...

“I remember reading about the stock market crash before the “great” depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows when they realized they screwed up and lost everything. Isn’t it ironic how far we’ve come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn’t have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it’s “business-as-usual”. Now when the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for the mistakes… isn’t that a clever, tidy solution.” ...

“I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.”

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Cybesq, commenting at The Huffington Post, makes an irrefutable point: “You have to love the thought process of lunatics. He rails against the rich, claims they control the government, and then flies his plane into a building of modestly paid government workers.”

But Jason, commenting on Stack’s manifesto at Business Insider, saw something else: “How can anyone call this man insane? It looks to me that his hostility has been building up for several years. Insane implies you are not in control, this man, it seems, was very deliberate in his actions. Thankfully he didn’t kill a bunch of people. Sounds like he tried to "fudge" his taxes, at least one year, you cannot f#ck with IRS, WARS ARE EXPENSIVE! and ‘somebody’ has to pay for them. Watch out people, it's only going to get worse. ...”

James weighed in, also at Business Insider: “He was extremely eloquent and a long way from a crackpot … perhaps he sees the matrix as it really is, perhaps you need to look at what is really going on. Today Wachovia announced that they have only foreclosed on 1% of the people in default.... the country is hurting because of the big banks and Wall Street, and nobody is protecting the average citizen. In fact, the Supreme Court just ruled that corporations can put as much money as they like behind any candidate that they feel.”



◊ ◊ ◊

That’s what so scary about Stack’s mad cri de coeur. Driven to rage by government’s protective instincts for bailing out the airlines and bailing out the banks, but at least appearing to put the needs of people on the backburner, Stack had a personal fuse that was clearly burning white-hot. But the primer cord of his personal and professional lives’ capacity to adapt to change is not so different from our own.

Stack is hardly the first American faced with scorching the earth of his own 401(k) today, years ahead of schedule, to make ends meet. He’s not the first one to be at the mercy of a job market whose bleakness for everyday people seems to grow exponentially month by month (regardless of what the Official Numbers say). He’s not the first to condemn the coziness of American government and American business.

What separates Joe the Frustrated Engineer from the rest of us is either the absence of that one incendiary spark — the big That Does It moment in which a dangerous idea metastasizes overnight, or faster, into a dangerous action — or the absence of willingness to actualize that rage, to nourish that spark with gasoline. For most of us, putting one foot in front of the other, going through the daily grind and looking for something, anything resembling a lifeline, is work enough.

Sometimes, hanging on in quiet desperation is the American way. Sometimes, for the Joe Stacks of America, it’s not.

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It’s anyone’s guess how Joe Stack’s death will be manipulated for political gain. The fire was still burning at that building in Austin and the blogosphere was already speculating on how the Tea Party and its anti-government champions may adopt Joe the Engineer as its patron saint of rebellion, probably to be mentioned in the same reverential language as that reserved for the John Birch Society and the Posse Comitatus.

At HuffPost, kanaka5000notvote4bloomberg, observed: “I heard the teabaggers and the morons at the CPAC convention had a moment of silence for their hero stack.

The New York Daily News reported Friday on some early reactions:
"Finally an American man took a stand against our tyrannical government that no longer follows the Constitution," wrote Emily Walters of Louisville, Ky. …

“Joe Stack, you are a true American Hero and we need more of you to make a stand,” tweeted Greg Lenihan, an engineer in San Diego.
Joe the Plumber, pick up your last check at the cashier’s window. Your services are no longer required.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s no minimizing the towering criminality of his actions on Thursday morning. What separated Joe Stack from the rest of us is the willingness to abide by the social contract, and to accept the value and importance of human life. When you cross that line and venture into the land of the beasts, you get what you deserve. Like having your name invoked with the middle name attached.

Stack’s action on Thursday has been characterized in the media with the word “insane” more than once. Without a mental evaluation, without Stack receiving the “therapy” he spoke of, we’ll never know.

But dubious clinical interpretations aside, insanity isn’t what’s communicated in this 3,000-word manifesto. More disturbingly, what’s communicated is despair, the deep, paralyzing existential despair that in point of fact none of us is that far away from — the same despair millions of Americans wrestle with every day.

Victoria Casseday, commenting in HuffPost, sees this: “The most dangerous species on earth are human beings who feel there is nothing left to lose and all hope is lost. Unfortunately, there are a lot more of them out there just lying in wait of that trigger, that straw that breaks the back of the camel.”

Image credits: Joseph Stack: Via CBS News. Joe Stack Twitter reaction: Via exiledonline.com.

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