What happens when the reality of people's lives becomes detached from institutions attempting to govern? In isolated cases, we diagnose psychosis and call for medication. And we label some behavior deviant and prosecute it as criminal. But what happens when there is wholesale dissonance? When the social realities faced by a people collide with institutions seemingly adrift and indifferent? This is the stuff of a fatal dialectic: Institutions repress; people rebel. The ground quakes with the potential for revolution.
Which leads me to Joe Stack, America's latest suicide bomber. He's the fellow who flew a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas, yesterday. His target was the Internal Revenue Service.
Was Stack a psychotic, or did he see things a little too clearly?
Mike, over at Crime and Federalism, notes that already plenty regard Stack as some sort of martyr. Stack left a suicide note in which he derided a government that bails out the rich, and ignores the poor. William Doriss, a frequest commenter on this page, noted a few weeks ago that there is new mantra in Washington. We bail out the big boys because they are too big to fail. Doriss wonders, do we let the little people founder because they're too small to succeed? Doriss is onto to something. Who bails out ordinary Americans who fell in love with a dream that no longer holds?
At the end of what will now be called the Stack Manifesto is the following:
"The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
"The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed."
What happens if ordinary people stop being gullible? What happens if there are other Joe Stacks out there who decide it's not all right to pledge allegiance to a set of institutions that promise liberty and justice for all and then delivers despair? What happens if there are other Joe Stacks out there who conclude that it makes no sense for a tiny handful of Americans to grow rich while the vast majority struggle to meet basic needs? What happens if ordinary Americans just start saying no?
What happens is social revolution. The new wine of frustration bursts the skins of centuries old institutions. The Old Regime crumbles.
Is that what Stack's suicide bombing means? Or is he merely a less literate version of the Unabomber -- an idiosyncratic visionary who took thinks just a little farther than the rest of us were prepared to go?
The dialectic of terror, as Franz Fanon taught years ago in The Wretched of the Earth, works as follows. The oppressed strike at power. Power responds with force. Those at the margin of dissent are pushed into opposition. Further violence ensues. And soon, the terrorist hopes, there is a large enough gap between the social reality of the oppressed and the machinery of power wielded by a tiny elite that room is created for new institutions.
I don't know what Joe Stack's bombing means. But I do know that the while an economic elite debates recovery, a large mass of Americans experience despair. What would happen if those too small succeed started to take themselves seriously? What would happen if they realized that the American Dream has gone the way of the American Century? What if Joe Stack is not an isolated man who snapped? What if, finally, Joe Stack were regarded as a martyr?
I can't say the possibility frightens me. Our political institutions -- lawmakers, the courts, the executive branch -- seems out of touch with the reality of American life. How else to explain that the land of the free incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized society? How to explain that raft of anger and rage engulfing the courts with litigants seemingly unable to conceive of the sorts or reasons judges and lawyers use as tools?
I wonder, finally, whether there are new barbarians crashing at the gates of Rome. These don't come from outside our borders. We are cultivating an entire class of barbarians at home: folks who do not have a stake sufficient in the status quo to care whether the status quo survives. Folks angry enough to kill for the sake of something better.
Is Joe Stack an aberration? What if people started turning anger not against themselves in the form of depression and addiction, but against institutions that promise what is never really delivered? Time will tell.