The Airplane Attack Next Door

It was right down the street from my home. An unhinged man in a single-engine airplane crashed into an Austin office building. The Internal Revenue Service had offices in that building. I was in those offices not long ago for a compliance check on a non-profit I run. I got passing grades, by the way.

I have just returned from driving through the area. I stopped at the local bookstore and grocery store on the way home. Workers there said they didn't even know it happened until some customers told them and they saw crowds gathering outside. Smoke still hangs in the air. There's a chemical smell to it.

I'd watched news coverage of the tragedy earlier in the day. It's a strange sensation. Full of the virtual reality of television coverage one minute. Present at the real-world scene the next minute. Most people are going about their business. Buying books. Buying groceries. Going home from work.

Americans are discussing whether the attack by Andrew Joseph Stack and his airplane is an instance of domestic terrorism. He was angry, angry at all kinds of people, angry at the government, especially at the IRS. This we know from the note he left behind. Does it matter whether we call the attack a crime or an act of terror?

Historians have made much of the terrible fact that the 20th century brought with it much greater acceptance of civilian targets in war. It's not that civilians hadn't perished before. Certainly Native Americans learned that bloody truth. But there was a difference in scale in the 20th century as the fields of techno-war bloomed with terrible new weapons. Think Dresden. Or Hiroshima.

All terrorism is aimed at unsettling people, whether it is undertaken by political zealots or a tormented psyche or both.

My question is this: Did the civilian blood of the 20th century helped lead to this era of terrorism, of crimes against innocents by individuals? Are individuals, twisted as they might be, led to do what nation-states did before them? Did Nagasaki give Timothy McVeigh and Joe Stack permission? The sentence looks preposterous. But is it? If it's not, what is to be done?

I had all these thoughts while driving by the rubble of Stack's attack on an Austin building near my home. School buses full of children were headed home from school. The UPS man waved as he passed me like he always does.

There are many in the world who have dealt with such attacks close to home. In the aftermath, the quick return to normalcy is, in some ways, healthy. But in other ways it is damned eerie. And it's the normalcy of these events that worries me as I stop to let the older man and his Cocker Spaniel cross the street.