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Austin Attack Highlights Dangerous Anti-IRS Rhetoric

February 18, 2010

Thursday's suicide airplane attack on the Austin office of the Internal Revenue Service by a disgruntled tax protester has once again focused attention on dangerously inflammatory anti-IRS rhetoric.
To be sure, the language was threatening.

"Gestapo-like tactics."
"The IRS is out of control!"
"Which would you prefer: having your wallet or purse stolen or being audited by the IRS?"
"You don't need to send in armed personnel in flak jackets."
"Well Mr. Big Brother IRS Man, let's try something different, take my pound of flesh and sleep well."

But even more disturbing is that only the last of those five statements came from Thursday's alleged Austin pilot, Joseph Stack. The rest came from some of the leading voices of the Republican Party during its late 1990's crusade against the IRS.
As David Cay Johnston describes in his book Perfectly Legal, the GOP during the Clinton administration waged an all-out war on the IRS, turning the priorities for auditing Americans upside-down. As Delaware Republican Senator William Roth's Finance Committee held hearings in 1997 and 1998, Mississippi's Trent Lott decried the IRS' "Gestapo-like tactics." Frank Murkowski (R-AK) similarly denounced those supposed "Gestapo-like tactics" while excoriating the Agency, "You don't need to send in armed personnel in flak jackets." Don Nickles of Oklahoma raged, "The IRS is out of control!" Meanwhile, GOP pollster and wordmeister Frank Luntz quizzed focus groups with his favorite question, "Which would you prefer: having your wallet or purse stolen or being audited by the IRS?"
Even as IRS Director Charles Rossotti warned Congress about an epidemic of tax cheating which had reached $195 billion a year, Senator Phil Gramm in May 1998 denounced the agency. Peddling myths of jack-booted IRS agents tormenting American taxpayers, Gramm called on Rossotti to fire his 50 worst employees. Gramm concluded:

"I have no confidence in the Internal Revenue Service of this country. You do not have a good system. This agency has too much unchecked power."

No surprise, Congress went on to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign the IRS Reform and Restructuring Act in 1998. And as Johnston documented, "In 1999, for the first time, the poor were more likely than the rich to have their tax returns audited."
Sadly, the picture of an unaccountable praetorian guard at the IRS painted by Republicans simply wasn't true.
In 2000, as David Cay Johnston again reported in the New York Times:

Two years ago, Congress, warned in hearings that the Internal Revenue Service was bullying many innocent Americans, passed a law requiring that the agency fire workers who harassed taxpayers.
But not one of the first 830 complaints of taxpayer harassment filed under the new law has been upheld by the I.R.S. or its new Congressionally designated watchdog, according to new data.
Investigations by the I.R.S. and the watchdog, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, found evidence that some of the complaints were bogus -- made in an effort to derail audits and tax collections. Others were either without merit or involved misconduct that fell far short of the Congressional definition of harassment.

Former FBI director and Judge William Webster, who headed up an investigation ordered by Roth's Senate Committee, concluded "No evidence was found of systematic abuses by agents." When a GAO inquiry similarly revealed "no corroborating evidence that the criminal investigations described at the hearing were retaliatory against the specific taxpayer," Senator Roth tried to prevent its report from becoming public.
But the damage was already done. Not only was the IRS's ability to pursue tax fraud gutted, but the incendiary rhetoric about the agency Republicans introduced was quickly propagated among tax protestors nationwide. And as the Bush Justice Department documented, that included anti-tax terrorists:

On April 4, 2003, the FBI arrested David Roland Hinkson, a constitutionalist and tax protestor, for attempting to arrange the murders of a federal judge, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and an IRS Agent whom he blamed for his legal problems regarding a tax evasion case against him. Between December 2002 and March 2003, Hinkson offered two individuals $10,000 for committing all three murders. On January 27, 2005, Hinkson was found guilty on three counts of solicitation to commit murder after a three week jury trial in Boise, Idaho. On June 3, 2005, Hinkson was sentenced to 43 years in federal prison.

As it turned out, Hinkson owed over a million dollars in taxes on his dietary supplement business, Water Oz. Echoing the sentiment Stack expressed online today, Hinkson described the IRS raid he endured in 2002:

"I believe that...[government officials] orchestrated the raid on Water Oz and my home for the sole purpose of murdering me and ending the lawsuit that was filed against them by me."

All of which once again highlights one of the most disturbing developments in conservative politics today. Whether concerning guns, abortion, gay Americans, immigration, judicial appointments or taxes, the line connecting the rhetoric of the Republican Party to right-wing terror is a very short one.
UPDATE: Almost on cue, new Massachsetts Republican Senator Scott Brown tried to rationalize the Austin attack, arguing:

""I don't know if it's related, but I can just sense not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency, they want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So I'm not sure that there's a connection, I certainly hope not. But we need to do things better."

If that language sounds familiar, it should. In 2005, Texas Senator John Cornyn similarly condoned threats to American judges in the wake of two courthouse attacks:

"I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country...And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence."

11 comments on “Austin Attack Highlights Dangerous Anti-IRS Rhetoric”

  1. Swadeshine,
    Yours is a fair point.
    Just to clarify, I'm not arguing that Joseph Stack is a necessarily a right-wing extremist or decided to commit his act of terrorism after ruminating on the words of Trent Lott et al. What his exact motivation and potential psychoses may be, I'll leave to others as the facts emerge.
    I'm simply suggesting that, regardless, this episode should be used to highlight a particularly venomous strain of rhetoric coursing through the veins of American politics. When it comes to demagoguing the IRS, that in recent years has been the province of the Republican Party.

  2. Yours is a fair point as well, although I think his anger was bigger than any one agency. The IRS was his immediate local problem to which he had a very poor solution.

  3. A "progressive" sees society as it is and wants to build upon that structure to make it better. Stack may have been a left-wing "radical" who by definition wants to tear down the existing social structure and implement a new vision. However, his motivating anxiety probably sprang from outside the constellation of purely political ideologies (ponder the significance of torching his home).
    Furthermore, "conservatives" are those who want things to remain in their current state, believing any changes would probably be detrimental to their status, i.e. we have at this time attained perfection. Moving to the right end of the spectrum, "reactionaries" desire dismantling the social structure (including government oversight) returning it to some nostalgic point in the past.
    The clashes in today's Washington are fundamentally struggles between the moderate-to-conservative versus conservative-to-reactionary. Progressives, sidelined, are taken for granted; and moderate Republicans have been dispelled, in part by the now feared internecine primary process. Offhand, I cannot presently bring to mind any radicals now sitting in Congress; however, there is an abundance of swaggering reactionaries. At times it requires a very generous application of "benefit-of-the-doubt" not to miscontrue their photo op media spins as plugs for anarchy.

  4. At times it requires a very generous application of "benefit-of-the-doubt" not to miscontrue their photo op media spins as plugs for anarchy.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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