The New York Times is reporting that a man flew a small plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas earlier today. One person is reported missing and two people were taken to the hospital. Based on internet postings the authorities believe it was an intentional act by a man named Joseph Stack.
No one is calling this an act of terrorism that I can tell, but it looks like one to me. There is no concrete definition of terrorism, but based on the various ones I've found it seems that it is defined as an ideologically motivated act of violence directed at a government or society. The suspect in this case laid out the problems he had with the IRS on the internet and said that the only answer was violence. In my book that makes this incident an ideologically motivated attack against a government agency and the people that work there. What if this guy were still alive and we could prosecute him? Would those people calling for military trials of the Christmas Day bomber and the 9/11 terrorists also say that the proper venue for a trial against the perpetrator of this crime is a military tribunal? Would the word terrorism even be mentioned in connection with this crime? It doesn't look like it has thus far. The NYT article doesn't mention it once (I think that would not be the case if the pilot's name was Mohammed instead of Joseph).
Let's take it one step farther. What if, instead of the act of one man, this was a conspiracy by a bunch of white men from Texas that wanted to strike at the U.S. government? We'd be looking at a situation that is less destructive, but very similar to the Oklahoma City bombing, which was a terrorist attack on American soil just like 9/11 and the Christmas Day attempt. Would we hold the guys that planned the Austin attack for days without an attorney to question them? Would we attempt to try them in a military tribunal? The answer is that we probably wouldn't and we definitely shouldn't. We didn't even consider doing that during Oklahoma City.
In this case it looks like the sole perpetrator is now dead, but I think it is important to ask whether or not, if the situation were different and more people were involved that could be tried, what our legal response would be. We successfully tried the Oklahoma City suspects in federal court. I think it likely that anyone charged in conspiring to attack the IRS building in Austin would be charged under a terrorism statute. I also think there is no question that they would be tried in a federal court just like many terrorism cases have been in the past but yet when it comes to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab people think we can opt out of the civilian justice system because they are "enemy soldiers" in the "War on Terror." We can't change our minds about how to approach these attacks just because we now say that we are "at war against terrorism." We've had a "War on Poverty" and a "War on Drugs", but we didn't take that as an opportunity to abandon the underpinnings of our legal system because it wasn't necessary then and it is not necessary now.