When rage and frustration about taxes goes over the edge

I long for the days when we defined a 'patriot' as someone who supports U.S.

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Some of today's populists are giving elitists a good name.

That thought came to mind after Joseph Andrew Stack fatally crashed his single-engine plane into a building that houses Internal Revenue Service offices in Austin, Texas.

Among the first things we learned about Stack in a rambling six-page suicide screed he left on his company's Web site were his frustrations with the government and a host of other demonic enemies, but particularly the IRS.

He admits to problems with communication because of "the storm raging in my head." It is a blame storm, we soon see, aimed at corporations, government and "the monsters of organized religion"

He offers red meat for the right and the left, but mostly for the loons.

His complaints about paying more than his fair share of taxes will resonate with the political right. And his rants against corporations like General Motors, health insurance companies, and prescription drug companies will bring cheers from the left.

But mainly he blasts the government for aiding all of the above with bailouts and other injustices to ordinary Americans, particularly him. He hopes the rest of us, whom he calls "zombies," will be awakened by his drastic act.

Sound familiar? In his one-man, all-directional fury he sounds like a one-man walking Tea Party rally. I hate to say it because the Tea Party populists I know are not suicidal. They're just angry.

But in their willful rejection of conventional forms of structure, leadership, organization or platform, the movement's members leave themselves open to associations with all manner of folks whom they otherwise might not want to invite home for dinner.

With that in mind, I think it was Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's bad fortune to have what was billed as his first national television interview since taking office with the smoke from the Austin IRS offices as his backdrop.

The Republican who won the late Ted Kennedy's seat with a strong pickup-truck-driving regular-guy appeal was asked by Fox News's Neil Cavuto about those who "invariably" are going to blame the Texas tragedy on "populist rage." Brown agreed with Cavuto that such an assumption was too extreme. Still, Brown saw similarities between his issues and those that troubled Stack.

"It's certainly tragic, and I feel for the families, obviously, that are being affected by it," he said. "And I don't know if it's related, but I can just sense, not only in my election but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency. They want their elected officials to be accountable and open and, you know, talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So, I'm not sure if there's a connection. I certainly hope not. But we need to do things better."

With all due respect to Brown, I don't think he meant to blame the real victims in this tragedy, the innocent people killed and injured by Stack's crash, although he almost sounded like he did. As a caller to a radio program on which I later appeared complained, "Someone needs to say that it is wrong to violently attack the IRS."

Yes, someone should. As a man who worked nearby told a local Austin TV news reporter: "This isn't the IRS. These are our friends, our neighbors." After all, inside every government "bureaucrat" there's a human being. They have rights, too.

Unfortunately, on the fringes of the new anti-elitism, pockets of extreme anti-tax resistance rage. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project has counted five known domestic terrorist plots against the IRS in the past 15 years, including a plot against an IRS building in Austin in 1995. "There's been an explosive growth of anti-government militias and so-called Patriot groups" over the past year, says project director Mark Potok, "and the central idea of many of them is that taxes are completely illegitimate."

Stack's screed called such attacks necessary to uphold the noble principles of the founding fathers, he says. No thanks. I'm old-fashioned. I long for the days when we defined a "patriot" as someone who supports our country. Only nut cases think we should attack our government to save it.

• E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)



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