Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Austin Plane Crash

A man with years of tax troubles and disputes with the IRS crashed a small plane into the building that houses the IRS office in Austin, Texas this morning.  Two people were injured and one is unaccounted for.  It's not clear from the current coverage what happened to the pilot, although it seems likely that he is dead.  Before crashing the plane, he had set fire to his home and left a six page letter/blog on the Internet explaining his actions.

Authorities have announced that this appears to be an isolated incident and that there is no ongoing threat.  The Department of Homeland Security released a statement that said,

We do not yet know the cause of the plane crash.  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.
Press coverage has also emphasized the description of this as a suicide, and most outlets are referring to his writing as a suicide note and using words like "rambling" and "incoherent" to describe it.

I find this spin absolutely fascinating.  Towards the end of his letter, the pilot wrote,

It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country. . . . I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. . . . I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored.
If you read his writing all the way through (you can download it here), you will disagree with his conclusions but you will not find it hard to understand at all.  It is not incoherent.  He is very clear that he is angry at the government, why he is angry at the government, and that he is about to do this to draw attention to his grievances, cause other people to pay attention to his thinking and inspire others to also kill themselves in similar attacks.

Let's suppose you didn't know anything about this story.  Suppose someone told you that a man, angry at the United States government and believing that its citizens should rise up against it, killed himself by flying an airplane into a building housing a government office.  He left behind writing detailing his belief that the government is corrupt and encouraging others to similarly die for the cause of freedom.  What is your mental image?  Mine is not of a computer engineer.  It's of a terrorist.

So why does DHS say this isn't terrorism?  And why is the media reporting it as an incoherent suicide?  Why does it seem so important to portray this person as crazy, while others, such as the Fort Hood shooter, are terrorists? 

The practical difference is that this man has no links to any organized group that anyone can tell.  When DHS says this isn't terrorism, they really mean this isn't organized terrorism, and they are right.  There is also, frankly, and element of religious and/or racial profiling.  Terrorists are Muslim and come from the Middle East, southern Asia or Northern Africa.  Americans can't be terrorists.

The other reason it's important to us to maintain this distinction, however, is that it makes us feel safe.  We have an image of terrorists that is truly frightening and represents an ongoing danger.  The thing that keeps us from being scared out of our minds is that, for the most part, we believe them to be "over there" and not here.  Those who may be here fit a certain profile and hence are easy to catch.

This pilot, on the other hand, isn't "over there."  If he's a terrorist, then there's a much greater risk of terrorism than we would like to think about.  There is no way to keep them out, because they're already in, and there is no way to figure out who they are.  So we tell ourselves that this guy was crazy and suicidal.  We know such people exist, and even that there is some danger from them, but they don't represent anything near the threat that terrorists do.  They are isolated incidents.

A certain amount of psychological self-preservation is a reasonable thing.  We do all sorts of things to prevent ourselves from being paralyzed by fear, and that is what allows us to function.  Sometimes, however, it pays to take a step back and ask whether we are protecting ourselves from fear or simply being oblivious to the truth.


Abraham Fisher said...

I don't disagree with your conclusions, but I do think that the sentence:

At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity

is government-speak for "there don't seem to be any links to any terrorist organizations or other terrorists."

Being in government-speak, it's a bit incomprehensible, naturally...

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