Clues to personality found in Austin plane crash pilot's diatribe

Before crashing his airplane into an IRS building in Austin Texas,  53 year old software engineer Joseph Andrew Stack posted a lengthy note online.  It begins:  "If you're reading this" -  thereby leaving no doubt that his acts were planned over at least some period of time.  It is dated today,  February 18th,  2010,  and before it ends,  he makes clear that he does not expect to survive his violent act. 

Across the internet news sources,  his statement has widely been described as a "manifesto,"  which is a statement of aims or intentions.  At the document source The Smoking Gun (which is where I found the text),  it is correctly referred to as a "diatribe,"  which is defined as a "bitter speech or writing."

I am writing this now because a TV news crew asked me to comment on the story as it was still breaking today.  Much more will be known about Joe Stack in the coming days.  But for now,  there is much to be learned from what he wrote.

Here are some of my first thoughts:

Was he crazy?

In some sense,  anyone who commits an act of domestic terrorism, while believing it is justified,  is crazy in some way.  In his writing,  however,  I did not see indications of delusional thinking or a clinically disordered thought process.  There are some hints of paranoia of the type that are common among those with anti-establishment attitudes and beliefs,  but there is none of the irrational and delusional paranoia that one would expect from a psychotic or schizophrenic individual.  He didn't say that the IRS was targeting him specifically or that the IRS put bugs in his bed or was communicating with him through laser beams.

His writing is essentially coherent,  although it is rather self-contained and self-referential.  In other words,  you need to understand his world view to know what he's talking about.  It would have made more sense to him than to anyone else,  and he assumes that you know and understand the things that he thinks he knows.

Is his writing the work of an irrational mind?  Not in a clinical sense.

Was he insane?  

That's a legal conclusion,  not a clinical one.  That question will never be tested in Court.  In legal terms,  the sanity question is:  did he know what he was doing and was he capable of knowing that it was wrong?  From his writing,  there is no reason to doubt that he was sane ... in a legal sense. 

So if he's not crazy,  does that mean he's a normal average guy?

Obviously not.  What you see in his writing is evidence of a "personality disorder."  Also known as "character disorders,"  these are long-standing,  deeply ingrained patterns of thinking,  feeling and behaving.  These disorders are formed from a person's attitudes,  values and beliefs.

Ordinarily,  we say that these characteristics are part of one's "personality style."  When a personality style is disruptive or maladaptive or a source of problems and troubles,  then we call it a disorder. 

What about his personality was disordered?

What you see in his writing is that he was a self-righteous,  grandiose,  resentful and narcissistic individual who tends to externalize blame and responsibility for his shortcomings and failures.  We also see that he was striving for power and omnipotence in the face of his fundamental human inadequacy. 

How do we see that?

Let's start with his first line,  where he writes:  "why did this have to happen?"  This is a classic assertion of non-responsibility.  Rather than saying that he "did something,"  he is saying that "something happened."  It is external to himself,  something about which he is suggesting he did not have control.  He could have written instead:  "you are probably wondering why I did this."

Stack goes on to say that his writing is meant to be a form of "therapy,"  adding that  "there isn't enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken."  At first,  you think he is saying that he tried to get help and it didn't work.  But as you read on,  you realize that he does not see himself as one who is broken or in need of help.   It's the world around him that is beyond fixing.  He's OK,  the "system" is not.  The therapy he is talking about is not for him,  it's for the broken system.

In the first paragraph,  Stack signals that he feels a sense of powerlessness and futility.  Even in writing about the reasons for his impending act of terror,  and before he tells us that he is actually trying to accomplish something by his death,  he says that the writing exercise might actually be "pointless."

He also gives us an indication in the first paragraph that he is feeling a sense of anger.  His comment is that there is "a storm raging in my head." What is interesting is that he does not refer to this feeling again.  Instead,  he simply provides a history detailing why he is so angry.  And as he details how he has suffered and been abused,  from the earliest days of his childhood,  he makes it clear that it is all the fault of others.  In essence,  he is saying that his anger is righteous and justified,  rational and reasonable.  No where is he at fault or to blame.  He is telling us that he worked hard,  struggled mightily and always tried to play by the rules of the game.  He is telling us that it is the game itself that is not fair,  that the rules were stacked against him,  and that while he was honest and forthright,  he never had a chance and never caught a break.

His grandiosity is evident in many ways.  The line that captures it best is his comment about moving from Lincoln California (the Sacramento region) to Austin Texas.  He said that he moved,   "only to find out that this is a place with a highly inflated sense of self-importance and where damn little real engineering work is done."  He is saying that he knows best.  He is a highly skilled and knowledgeable engineer and everyone else is some type of hack.

We see the grandiosity also in his over-intellectualized analysis of the tax code he complains about.  He lets us know that he has studied it and absorbed it and that his understanding must certainly supersede that of the experts who administer it.  He refers us to an online resource describing these complex issues (having to do with the difference between employees and independent contractors) and refers to that resource as "our discussion,"  as if it is his work and his thinking.  In referring to his obsession with the tax code and wasted efforts in trying to change it,  he says that "the best we could get" was nothing at all.  What he is saying is that he is not a lone crusader,  but instead a central player in a movement.  He refers to those in the movement with him as members of "disorganized professional groups,"  telling us again that in whatever he does,  he is surrounded by incompetents. 

Stack's  fundamental narcissism is seen in his view that he is nothing other than a successful and accomplished individual whose failures in life are (again) entirely the fault of others.  And from his letter,  we learn that his failures are significant.  He refers to a failed marriage,  a lack of success in business,  the loss of his retirement funds on two occasions,  and an inability to secure wages commensurate with what he believes he deserves.  The troubles he got into with the IRS are not,  in his view,  the result of his having failed to take care of business.  He positions himself as responsible and successful,  even while he documents his failings.  He tells us through his analysis that he knows better than everyone else.  He is the one who sees through everything and understands the corruption.  There is nothing that he did wrong,  because like any narcissist,  he is not one who can do wrong.

Where does the striving for power and omnipotence come in?

Read the final paragraphs where he begins to talk about the justification for his act of terror.

Even though he says that he has "just had enough" (i.e.,  he's mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more),  he does not formulate his actions as an expression of his rage.  What he says,  in essence,  is that he is standing on principle and that he is undertaking the journey of a hero.  His hero quest is cast in mythic terms,  including where he aligns his purpose with the struggles of "the blacks and poor immigrants."  Earlier in his note,  he cast himself as one who was in sympathy with the struggles of the union workers in the "steel mills of central Pennsylvania."  Most people will say that his act was cowardly.  In his message,  he has cast himself instead as a brave soldier in the fight against the man.

When he tells us what he hopes will come of his act,  we see that in his view,  it is political.   He is not a pathetic loser who has failed and given up.  He is not saying that he could no longer tolerate life or the frustrations he created for himself.  He is not describing it as an act of despair or despondency.

What he is telling us in his final paragraphs is that his intent is to spark a revolution.  His claim is that he is one of those who is "dying for their freedom in this country."  He is suggesting that others will follow his path and that it is through this ostensibly selfless act of heroism that things will actually change.  Violence,  he says,  "is the only answer."  He sees himself as one who is willing to act to "stop the insanity." As I read it,  he is not talking about the insanity raging in head.  He is talking about the insanity that ails the country as a whole.

What he is striving for,  in his formulation,  is the significance and the power of martyrdom.  His life,  as he describes it,  was unremarkable,  unaccomplished and insignificant.  His dream is that he will become a beacon and an icon.  Referring to himself as the one who will light the fuse (and the lamp),  he says:  "I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt."  He expects that "people wake up and begin to see." 

What is the significance of this type of pathological narcissism?

As I said above,  he is not describing himself as despondent or as a victim of despair.  He is not saying that his existence has become so painful that he chose to tear reality apart through an act of horrific violence.  Through intellectualization and political affectation,  he is denying that his motives are common and base or that he was simply discharging his anger and frustration.  His intention is to elevate his battle to a higher plane of sanity,  describing it as a noble cause.  He is telling us that he is acting in response to a purity of heart.

The narcissism belies his entire argument.  Indeed,  it is exquisitely an act of self-aggrandizement for him to have even thought that anyone might accept or endorse his rationale (anyone that is,  except for other lunatics).  The narcissism tells us that it is really all just about him.  Because he is such a noble character (in his view),  he is justified in inflicting harm on the innocents in the building.

My argument that he is a fundamental narcissist helps us understand how a seemingly rational individual could commit such a horrific crime.  Narcissism is the essential psychodynamic underpinning for the anti-social personality.  Individuals with this personality type are also commonly referred to as psychopaths,  sociopaths or common criminals.  They are individuals who seem to care not at all about others,  people like Bernie Madoff,  who seemed to have no inhibitions or sense of shame or guilt when it came to stealing great fortunes.   They don't experience guilt and they are deficient in their ability to feel remorse.  Their needs and desires are so important,  and their desires for satisfaction and gratification are so great that they have no reason to care at all about the feelings of others.  Where they live,  in their minds,  is at the center of the universe.  They have no need to empathize and so they feel entirely free to victimize.

The point is that no matter how he chose to rationalize his actions,  there was nothing at all noble,  heroic or transcendent in what he did.

Is that really why he did it?  Is that really what it's about?

Probably not.  His words and his explanation are not to be trusted.

His statement is a self-indulgent form of intellectualization.  He is telling us that he was rational and acting with good cause.  His purpose in writing seems to have involved a desire not to simply be written off as another angry lunatic who couldn't cope with the adversities one naturally faces in life.  It is certain that he would have bristled at being described as just another "disgruntled" figure who decided to indulge his fantasies and satisfy his rage.

But that is what we are left with when we look at what he did.  In a perverse way,  acts of violence are often self-indulgent and self-fulfilling.  It is probable that as he flew towards his victims,  he felt a sense of power,  purpose and satisfaction beyond anything that he ever experienced during the course of his miserable life.

In reading his "manifesto,"  I am reminded of the scene in the movie Michael Clayton when the character played by George Clooney finally accomplishes his heroic task.  A man asks him who is he is,  and Michael Clayton replies:  "I am Shiva,  the God of Death."   That is the status,  I believe,  that Joe Stack was seeking to achieve. 

This wasn't an heroic act,  as Stack suggests.  This was not,  as he tells us,  a matter of his choosing to stand for the good.  In a sense,  it wasn't even a political act.  That is just the veneer he applied.  This was in all likelihood just a way for him to relieve his frustrations and to achieve the sense of power,  potency and significance that eluded him in life.

So was it really just about anger and rage,  frustration and hostility?

That is not what I would focus on.  There are many who commit explosive acts of violence and who can be described as having "over-controlled hostility."  They can't cope with their anger,  it builds up,  and then,  like with a pressure cooker,  they explode.  In those cases,  there is often an immediacy to the crime and traces of the rage to be found in the evidence.

I'm reminded of a case I worked on a few years ago.  A "really nice" man watched as his marriage imploded,  and without explanation he stabbed his son forty something times and then bludgeoned him further with a hammer.  The man survived,  and to him,  his acts were entirely incomprehensible.  Joe Stack,  on the other hand,  contemplated his act and prepared for some time.  It was deliberate and entirely intentional.  His note tells us that he is not a man who "exploded in a fit of rage" or that he is a person who "lost control" of his senses.

His note tells us that he nurtured his anger and probably took pleasure from it (again,  in a perverse way).  He did not simply "go off" and act on impulse.  He made a decision and coldly created a document that he thought would serve as his excuse.

The anger cannot be discounted.  But the anger has to be understood in the context of his having let us know that he was self-righteous,  resentful,  grandiose and narcissistic.  Whatever rage might have consumed him,  he let us know clearly that this was nothing less than premeditated decision. 

Was it a crime or an act of terror?

It was an act of horrific violence.  Technically,  it was a crime,  but that term does not satisfy our need to understand or categorize his behavior.

What he wrote is that it was a political act.  What he implied is that it was an expression of the mythic-heroic ideal.  He wanted to be remembered as "Joe the Revolutionary."  He signed his note:  "Joe Stack (1956 - 2010),"  as if his were a life complete and he would be an historical figure.  

He placed his crime in a political context.  He offered it as an act of war.  He fired a shot against his own government and against a civilian population.  Call it treason or call him a traitor.  And call it what he said it was:  a politically motivated act of war intended to inflict civilian casualties and to serve as propaganda,  rather than to achieve a strategic goal.   For that,  there would seem to be no word better than "terrorism."

Could this really be part of a movement?

There is in this country today,  it seems to me,  a gathering storm of mindlessly angry people who are "fed up" for reasons they can barely explain.  There are people in the media who are telling them they should be angry,  and perhaps more importantly,  that they should be afraid.

Fear and loathing is not unexpected in times of economic turmoil,  distress and uncertainty.

What concerns me is that some people have come to identify the government as an enemy of the people.  They are grandiose in their belief that they understand it all better than anyone else.  They are self-righteous in their indignation and in their resentment.  They express a sense of entitlement,  arguing that they have a right not just to their own opinions,  but also to their own facts.  They shout until no one can hear them and then complain that no one is listening.  They expect their individual voice to prevail and then complain that they have been denied representation.  They do not wish to contribute to the common good,  but demand all the benefits they have been promised.  Like Stack,  they bemoan corporate greed while demanding that greed be unfettered.

No movement that takes it self seriously should find inspiration in the death of Joe Stack.  He demonstrated that he is simply part of the lunatic fringe.  A movement has to stand for something other than chaos and anarchy.  If we say that his act symbolizes anything more than his individual psychopathology,  then what it symbolizes is nothing more than death,  despair and defeat.

Will others be inspired?

Let's hope not.  Let's hope that what he inspires is a return to sanity and an end to the craziness.  Let's hope that he gives us reason to restore civil discourse,  to recognize that social and political nihilism is not a philosophy of any type, and that domestic terror is not part of the solution.

In his diatribe,  Joe Stack wanted us to believe that in his abject failure,  he had achieved success.  It's as if he listened to only part of what Bob Dylan once sang ("there's no success like failure"),  without bothering to stick around and hear the end of the lyric:  "and failure's no success at all."

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.