Andrew Joseph Stack III, apparently partially motivated by a hatred of the IRS, crashed his plane into an Austin building. This incident has been officially classified as a criminal act rather than a terrorist attack. However, some have contended that this is a case of conservative terrorism. While this incident is a terrible one, it does raise the issue of what counts as terrorism.
From a purely cynical standpoint, it could be claimed that the label of terrorism is applied as a matter of politics. Acts are declared terrorists acts so as to gain some sort of political game piece to be played for an advantage. For example, the underwear bomber is a terrorist because this enables the Republicans to claim that a terrorist attack occurred on Obama’s watch. In this current case, neither the Republicans nor Democrats can gain a political point by calling this incident terrorism and so they do not label it as such.
However, there seems to be a matter worth discussing here that is beyond mere political rhetoric.
One plausible view of terrorism is that it is the intentional use of force on to create fear and this is done on the basis of ideological motivations. To distinguish this from standard police and military actions, it can be added that the force is aimed at civilian targets or at the very least disregards the civilian/combatant distinction. Of course, the concept is one that is rather heavily debated and, as such, this can hardly be considered a definitive and non-controversial account. However, it does seem to have intuitive appeal. This definition does seem to nicely capture paradigm cases of terrorism, such as the 9/11 attack.
Using this definition, Stack’s attack would seem to be terrorism. After all, he seems to have been clearly motivated by ideological factors (combined, of course, with various personal issues) and he used violence against civilians. The parallels to 9/11 are quite clear, even down to the use of a plane as the weapon.
Of course, Stack’s attack has been presented as a criminal act rather than an act of terrorism. This raises the obvious question of what distinguishes Stack’s attack from a terrorist act.
One factor that might be pointed to is that Stack is an American and this makes his act a criminal act rather than a terrorist act. However, this does not seem to be enough to change the nature of the act from being an act to terror to a mere criminal act. After all, there can be internal acts of terror committed between citizens. For example, the bombings in Iraq by Iraqis are considered to be terrorist acts as were the acts of the IRA in Ireland.
Another factor is that Stack seems to have acted as an individual without any supporting group that trained or at least helped guide him towards his act. It is generally accepted that terrorism is a systematic process that requires a group or organization. Obviously there can are criminal organizations that commit violent acts to advance their goals. However, these are usually distinguished from terrorist groups by their motivations. That is, criminal groups often create fear to make money while terrorist groups often commit crimes to make money to fund terrorist attacks so as to advance their ideology. Of course, the line between terrorist groups and criminal groups is often a blurry one-especially in cases involving large scale drug trafficking.
If terrorism is defined in a way that makes it a group thing, then Stack’s attack would not count as a terrorist attack. This view does have some plausibility as shown by a comparison to war.
If I organize and launch an attack against my neighbors and take over their house, then I am a criminal. If my country organizes and launches an attack against another country, then this is war and not (on the face of it) a criminal act. Perhaps terrorism works the same way. To use a metaphor, perhaps terrorism and war are team sports so that an individual cannot play those games by himself.
So, while Stack was motivated by ideological factors and used violence against civilians, the fact that he acted alone would entail that he was a criminal and not a terrorist. If he had, however, some links (however tenuous) to the right sort of group, then he could be classified as a terrorist.
As noted above, there have been some arguments that Stack was a terrorist on this basis. The general case is that he was actually part of a group with a definite ideology and hence this provides him with the necessary context for being a terrorist. The weak point in this argument is that the group that Stack is supposed to be associated with is a rather vague one, namely people who dislike the government and the IRS. Taking such tenuous group membership is taken as an adequate basis to define a person who commits violence as a terrorist seems to make the definition of “terrorist” rather broad. After all, anyone who does not dwell in complete isolation will have some sort of association with some people who have some sort of ideological views. The challenge here is, of course, to work out what sort of relation a person would need to have to what sort of group to make that person a terrorist rather than a criminal.
It is, of course, tempting to take the view that “terrorist” is primarily a political label that is placed to serve the political ends of the person applying the label. So, for example, a person might be labeled a terrorist so that he can be interrogated with enhanced techniques, assassinated or jailed without due process. Or someone might declare a “war on terror” so as to use it as a political tool to reshape laws and how they are applied. A lone person who crashes a plane into a building simply doesn’t provide a useful political game piece and hence is labeled as a criminal rather than a terrorist.