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Joseph Stack and Right-Wing Terror: Isolated Incidents or Worrying Trend?

Thursday's antitax domestic terror attack on an IRS building in Austin, Texas, may reopen a debate that's been quiet since last summer: are violent incidents against the federal government on the rise?

The notion of far-right terror was much discussed following the June incident at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in which white supremacist James von Brunn killed a security guard and injured two other people. That followed on the brutal February murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, by a militant abortion foe. Meanwhile, there had been a spike in threats against Barack Obama since his inauguration. Suddenly much of the media was in an uproar about a new domestic terror threat, with Fox News' Shep Smith offering a stunningly frank and heartfelt statement of concern live on the air. And then things quieted down.

Joseph Stack's suicide note, a lengthy screed posted online—it's since been removed but can be viewed here—shows signs of both right- and left-wing extremism. The tax protest movement has historically been linked to right-wing groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement, white supremacist groups, and militias. Stack mentions meetings with groups that meet that rubric, and his antigovernment rhetoric fits that mold too. But he also takes traditionally left-wing swipes at corporations for keeping the little guy down, and signs off, "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."

Groups that track extreme right-wing violence say they see a definitive spike in activity. "This attack comes in the context of an absolute explosion in militias and the larger antigovernment 'patriot' movements in the last 12 to 18 months," says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "This has been driven initially by nonwhite immigration for the last 10 years, which is reflected in the person of Barack Obama, which represents a very real and irreversible demographic change. Second, the economy has played a role. Unemployment has stayed high. There's a huge amount of anger about bonuses for bankers, at the same time that most middle-class and working-class Americans don't see things getting better, and in fact getting worse."

In a report tracing far-right terror between the Oklahoma City bombings and fall 2009, SPLC found six cases of attacks targeting the Internal Revenue Service. More important,12 of the 75 overall incidents documented have happened since Obama's election, or else happened prior but involved Obama (as a motive or a target) anyway. Potok says the level of violence is reaching levels last seen during the 1990s, when a wave of militias arose—especially in states like Montana and Michigan—of people who believed they needed to protect themselves from the government. But that activity was fed by fears of large government, and especially confrontations involving the government at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Although left-wing administrations are a common denominator, these groups didn't like the Bush administration's record on civil liberties, either. It's just that after the movement ran out of gas in the 1990s, the economic crisis provided a new burst of energy.

Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, also says that Obama's election has "energized" the extreme right. In strict numbers of members, he says the biggest increases are in antigovernment groups, while white-supremacist groups, though more active, have seen less growth. Pitcavage, who has recently begun tracking the number of domestic terror incidents, says there was a marked increase in such attacks in 2009—33 attacks (a figure that includes Islamist attacks at Fort Hood and in Little Rock, Ark., as well as a suspected left-wing attack in Seattle) as compared with 13 in 2008, 21 in 2007, and 14 in 2006. But he warns against assuming that the difference between the Obama and Bush administrations is too vast. "In terms of violent incidents, they did not stop [when Bush was in  office]," he says, adding that the number of hate-related incidents tend to be undercounted—the motives often aren't clear, they don't become clear until later. "A lot don't get covered beyond local and regional news."