Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Stack Fiasco (updated)

By now the name Joseph Stack and the north-west area of Austin, Texas have become a dinner table topic throughout the entire USA (never mind that I live and work within miles of the disaster). I decided to read Mr. Stack's suicide note and listened to a lot of the news coverage and other information about the situation. When I discuss the subjects of unintended consequences and some of the other political and social subjects in this blog, my intent is to heighten awareness of the very situation we saw today. I strongly recommend reading Stack's note and getting a full dose of the news coverage before jumping to any conclusions.

With that, I offer my own analysis.

As I have said repeatedly here, there is always a thread of truth to most crackpot conspiracy theories and Stack's comments are pretty close to being one. Yes, we have problems with how our government is handling the economy and many other things. I think Stack touched on some ideas that require serious thought, such as the government bail-out of various corporations and industries. Why is the U.S. tax code so complex that nobody can understand it? Why do religious groups get any tax breaks in a modern society? But...Is that any reason to burn your house down (leaving your wife and daughter homeless) and flying an airplane into an Austin, Texas office building housing the IRS and other companies? Uhhh...doesn't seem like even the act of a desperate man...more like a, well, crazy, self-centered man...

After a more careful reading of Stack's suicide note, I was trying to pull together his history with the IRS. He begins his history with the following statement:
Some friends introduced me to a group of people who were having 'tax code' readings and discussions. In particular, zeroed in on a section relating to the wonderful "exemptions" that make [religious] institutions [...] so incredibly wealthy. We carefully studied the law (with the help of some of the "best", high-paid, experienced tax lawyers in the business), and then began to do exactly what the "big boys" were doing. [...] We took a great deal of care to make it all visible, following all of the rules, exactly the way the law said it was to be done.

My understanding of this paragraph is that he joined a group of people who were attempting to exploit tax loopholes that he and some friends felt were already being exploited by religious groups and certain corporate interests. Anybody who has half a brain knows that you don't screw with the IRS. When you launch an effort to evade certain taxes by taking advantage of what you feel are loopholes in the system (even to prove a point), you need to be ready and willing to accept that you will be targeted as a tax cheat and to fight the IRS and potentially pay the price for your actions. Yeah, I feel that religious exemptions and some corporate tax shelters are wrong, and it is tempting to make a statement by exploiting them somehow. If you're going to fight like that, you have to be ready to lose. He did.

I really feel bad for the people that Stack left in his wake. To some extent, he accomplished what he wanted: To make people aware of his complaints about the current state of society and our country. What he has no way of knowing now is that only people willing to read what he wrote and give him an ounce of credibility will even give his ideas a passing thought. Those people are probably the same ones who already gave his ideas a passing thought. Everyone else (a majority of the world) will see him as a crackpot, a terrorist, an angry, deranged man with a beef with the IRS, and someone who cared more about his disagreement with the government than his own family. He will create a new reason for our government to encroach on our freedoms, in the name of "safety." Even if he had a legitimate beef with the IRS (I'm not sure it was legitimate), to disrupt the lives of the people he did in the name of shaking things up to effect change has only been counterproductive.

I'm sure that there are those who see me as as a nutjob of sorts, and wonder sometimes when I'm going to crack like Stack did. Let me assure you all that I'm neither a nutjob nor would I ever stoop to these tactics. If I were to crack, I would be more likely to cause harm to myself than to others. Heaven knows there is already too much violence in the world as it is, and we don't need any more. Whether you agree with me or not; whether I am frustrated with the world (I am, sometimes) or not; deep down I care about the world and hope for it to be a better place. I write here, in a public place, hoping that someone will think my ideas have some value, and will pass them along. With time, and some refinements by people much smarter than I am, I suspect that I will have some success in effecting change. I feel this is a heck of a lot more effective and lasting than flying a plane into a building.

Update: Feb 23, 2010 - An equally bad reaction

The family of Vernon Hunter, the only man (aside from Stack) killed in the crash, is filing a wrongful death suit in court against Stack's estate, naming Stack's wife Sheryl as the executor of the estate. Why? To quote a KVUE news story who quoted the attorney (Daniel Ross) representing Hunter's family, "Mr. Hunter had 8 grandchildren at various ages and they simply did not want any of them reading the details of the autopsy." Allegedly they can't keep the results of the autopsy from becoming public without suing Stack's estate.

I'd wager a cold lemonade that at least one of those 8 grandchildren probably watched some film with gore and guts in it, or CSI on CBS.

Seriously folks, aren't we getting just a bit too sensitive here? I really do feel for both Sheryl (as I said above) and for Vernon Hunter's family. I really do. It was a horrible thing and most of us wish it didn't happen. That all said, I really doubt that the autopsy results are going to make this horrible situation any worse than it already is. Those kids will be reminded of this incident from now until they rebuild the Echelon building, since its burned-out carcass sits right off to the side of the highway as a grim reminder to us all. What are we going to do next, put a big white sheet over the building and pretend it never happened? There are already loads of video footage of the crash and the resulting fire out on the Internet and everywhere else. This isn't something you can protect young eyes from seeing.

Sheryl Stack has enough problems right now. Think about it: Her husband burned their house down. Do you think homeowner's insurance is going to pay for this? It's arson, by the owner of the house. Do you think Sheryl is going to get any life insurance money? Her husband killed himself. Life insurance policies don't usually pay for suicides. I bet Sheryl has trouble sleeping at night with the thought that she actually lived with this man, and probably will have trouble trusting any man from here on out...and I can't say I blame her. If I'm speaking out of turn here, and Sheryl doesn't actually feel this way, I apologize, but what I'm trying to say is that she's going through her own version of hell right now that she almost certainly doesn't deserve. Why compound that problem with lawsuits, the only purpose being to prevent the public release of an autopsy? To be frank, the autopsy isn't really even news - what's news is that Vernon was killed by a lunatic. If I were a family member, that fact would be more devastating to me than any autopsy results. Again, I repeat myself, that my heart goes out to Vernon Hunter and his family - seriously. But they have to understand that they are not the only ones going through hard times right now.

Now my second bad reaction: Stack's (step?) daughter's (Samantha Bell) comment about Joseph Stack being a "hero" on Good Morning America. Yes, I know she recanted her statement, but the damage has already been done. I can only hope that the comment was an unintentional slip-up of words by someone still in shock. I've already gone over my objection regarding heroism in my earlier part of this posting. A response by someone saying, "If you don't like the tax laws, contact Congress. That is what the United States is about..." is coming close to being equally bad, though. Understand that there are many people who have been harassed by the IRS (or other agency) over the years. If you think contacting Congress would help, you may want to try it out sometime. While we have a comparatively better government than most countries, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Finally, it is time we look at this incident in all its ugliness and try to take with it some hard lessons. Right at the top, that there really are people who are frustrated with "the system." Maybe it's time to find out why. The IRS has a particularly nasty reputation. I suspect that they've earned the distinction, in some cases. Maybe our government has been showing a serious lack of fiscal responsibility, and we all need to take a hard look at how there's no such thing as a free lunch. We teach our children that they are entitled to things rather than showing them that things are earned. Violence is presented as entertainment, while any enjoyment of sex is considered taboo. What kind of message does that send to society? Don't people get what they want through violence in stories in movies? This is not the first time that someone has acted in anger against a group of people because of frustration. Unfortunately, it won't be the last either. I put this act in the same category as the bombing in Oklahoma City, the shooting in Columbine, and so forth. All angry people. All people who were frustrated with "the system." All people who thought they were entitled to some sort of retribution. Those who don't act out in violence do so in more "acceptable," but equally destructive, ways. The feeling of "entitlement" is a dangerous thing, and we've become really good at spreading that feeling.

The worst things we can do is to give any justification to Stack's actions and to beat each other up because of what he did. If you're going to react to this, react constructively. Imagine what we could accomplish if, instead of feeling entitled to something, we used our talents to give something back to the world, even if in a small way. That would go a very long way toward preventing this kind of thing from happening in the future, and make the world a better place. Think about it.

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