Joe Stack, the bass-playing, tax-hating Austin divebomber who murdered at least one person yesterday, left a confusingly post-partisan populist suicide note, making it hard for pundits to assign blame for his actions to their political opponents. But they're still trying.
As soon as Stack's suicide note was discovered online yesterday, the political calculations began: He hated Bush (so do liberals!). He hated taxes (so do Tea Partiers!). He hated religion, but he also thought we live under a totalitarian regime. He approvingly quoted Karl Marx, but he hated government bureaucrats. That's quite an incoherent grab-bag of positions, often with mutually exclusive political implications, which isn't really surprising seeing as how it was issued by someone who set his own house on fire and then piloted an airplane into a building. But since we've lately had a rash of sudden and random violence from politically motivated actors, from James von Brunn to Scott Roeder, the de rigeur (and sometimes justified) next step is to associate the murderer's rantings with other law-abiding political partisans, and begin the laying of blame.
Since Stack's manifesto is so confusing, the initial moves yesterday as the event unfolded were preemptive: He's not one of ours. Literally minutes after the note was discovered, CNN's Rick Sanchez was on the air arguing that Stack's condemnation of "presidential puppet GW Bush and his cronies" should be taken with a grain of salt, because Stack also attacked "Obama's policies" (though that's not really true—he seems to support health care reform, and nothing about the tax system that Stack rails against is specifically associated with Obama). Time observed that the note "eerily reflected the angry populist sentiments that have swept the country in the past year," obliquely referring to the teabaggers.
Meanwhile, the right-wingers at Newsbusters started complaining that the "liberal media" was deliberately covering up Stack's shout-out to Marx, which constituted "perhaps the most politically consequential lines in the entire note" and proved conclusively that he was no teabagger.
Last night, Laura Ingraham warned Bill O'Reilly that "over the next few days, you will hear from the left and all the crazies that, you know, we talk about other networks and so forth trying to tie CPAC maybe, the Tea Party movement, all of this anger on the right that is out there.... I mean, you're going to hear that. I don't think it's believable. The guy is obviously a total nut." And this morning. Michelle Malkin launched a screed against the "furious left-wing bloggers" trying to link Stack to right-wing rage, arguing that "no law-abiding Tea Party group would ever condone what he did" (ignoring the question of how the law-breaking Tea Party groups feel about it).
It's all a tiresome little game, really. When someone who hates taxes and the government kills people, he's a lone nut and anyone who says otherwise is a disingenuous liberal. When a Muslim who hates the war in Afghanistan kills people, he's part of a sophisticated international terrorist conspiracy and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor. The same people who are so strenuously declaiming that anti-tax rhetoric and ideas had nothing to do with his crime were literally days ago shouting that the Alabama professor who shot up her tenure committee was a "'far-left political extremist who was 'obsessed' with President Obama'"—as though we are at risk of a rash of gun crimes from Harvard-educated lefties.
Stack is one in a long, long line of people who have attempted to injure or kill IRS agents. People have hated tax collectors for as long as people have liked money. Honestly, his profile—a bass player in the Austin country-rock scene, graduate of the Milton Hershey School for troubled teens in Pennsylvania, and lover of jazz—doesn't seem to align too well with the reactionary gun-toting revanchist types that show up at Tea Party rallies. He sounds a little like a hippie. And to the extent that his little screed seemed to take up opposing threads of the contemporary political debate, it's silly to try to fit him into a caricature of either side. He was motivated by rage at his own failures, for which he blamed faceless bureaucrats.
But he did hate the IRS, and he did hate taxes, and he did feel entitled to not have to pay them. Political partisans will always be able to find examples of violent extremism with which to tar their opponents. The balaclava-clad lefties who throw rocks at G5 meetings are ideological cousins of the American left, just as Timothey McVeigh and Eric Rudolph were ideological cousins of the teabaggers. The difference is that the Democratic Party establishment isn't currently engaged in actively fomenting the sort of rage that motivates the fringe of their party. The problem isn't that the right wing is creating Joe Stacks, or should be held responsible for inciting them. It's impossible to know whether Stack would have done what he did absent a current environment of deluded anti-government hysteria on the right wing, but given the facts that his grievances go back to the Reagan era and that he seems to have been squeezed to despair by the recession, it's likely that his rage transcended the Fox News-driven political dynamic. And there will always be people like him. The problem is that the GOP and Fox News are currently addressing their political messaging to people like him. They're not creating or inciting the right-wing fringe so much as bringing it in from the cold.