Flames were still shooting from the building when the suicide pilot who crashed his plane into the IRS office in Austin was being hailed in some corners as a hero who struck a courageous blow against the tyranny of the U.S. tax code.
While most Americans surely see Joseph Stack as an angry, misguided man whose final act was repugnant, his suicide mission has clearly tapped a vein of rage among anti-tax, anti-government extremists.
The way they see it, "he did the ultimate flipping of the bird to the man," said JJ MacNab, a Maryland-based insurance analyst who is writing a book about tax protesters. "He stuck it to the man, and they love that."
It is not surprising Stack would be portrayed as a hero on fringe Web sites such as stormfront.org, a forum for white supremacists. But admirers also are expressing their appreciation on mainstream sites such as Facebook, where a fan page supporting some of the things he said in his six-page manifesto had more than 2,000 members Monday.
‘We are not on the right path’
Stack, 53, left behind a rambling, 3,000-word screed in which he ranted about his financial reverses, his difficulty finding work in Austin and his hatred of big business. Mostly, though, he focused on his clashes with the IRS, including one after he failed to file a tax return because he said he had no income. Stack traced his problems to a 1986 change in the tax code affecting software contractors like him.
In Texas, Republican gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina told a San Antonio radio station last week that she did not sympathize with Stack, but that his act reflected "the hopelessness many in our society feel."
"There is a sense in all of our country that we are not on the right path," she said.
Asked whether she considered her father a hero, Stack's adult daughter, Samantha Dawn Bell, said during a telephone interview broadcast Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America": "Yes. Because now maybe people will listen." But she stressed that his actions were "inappropriate."
Later, though, in an interview with The Associated Press in Norway, where she lives, she said she does not consider her father a hero. She said she understands her father's animosity toward a "faulty" and "unbalanced" American tax system. But she said he should have found "a completely different way" to address it.
"Write letters — that's what he should have done, rather than actually doing what he did," she said.
Threats against IRS employees have steadily increased in the past five years, climbing from 834 in fiscal 2005 to 1,014 threats in 2009, according to J. Russell George, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration.
"The new commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service has made it clear, and rightfully so, that people who owe the IRS money should pay the money they owe," George said. "That activity, coupled with the economy as well as a general sense of unease, have caused people to react in ways we all hoped they would not."
Security tightened across U.S.
Since the attack, security has been tightened at IRS offices across the country, he said.
Mark Potok, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white supremacists and other hate groups, said the attack on the IRS has been endorsed by extremists even more enthusiastically than the shooting rampage last June at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that left a security guard dead.
"I think Joseph Stack has tapped into a very deep vein of rage against the government," he said.
On one Internet thread full of praise for Stack, one person wrote that he must "suppress the urge to take flying lessons."
Pensacola, Fla., pastor and radio host Chuck Baldwin wrote on his Web site that he wished Stack had not died "because we need each other." He added: "My heart goes out to Joe Stack! The sentiments expressed above are shared by millions of Americans who are also fed up with Big Brother."
Larken Rose, a 41-year-old Pennsylvania man who served a year in prison for willful failure to file an income tax return, said he does not consider the IRS employee killed in the attack and the man's injured co-workers to be innocent victims.
"I don't know how many people they harassed or how many houses they had stolen or how many bank accounts they had swiped," he told the AP. Stack's letter "shows quite obviously he was not crazy. He was frustrated. He had been wronged over and over."
The IRS used to keep a master list of tax protesters until 1998, when a change in the law prevented the agency from tracking them. MacNab estimated there are more than 500,000 tax protesters today, the vast majority of whom do not file tax returns.
"There are people who sympathize with this crime and turn the criminal into a hero," said Fathali Moghaddam, a psychology professor at Georgetown University. "At tax time, what better authority figure to hit than the tax man?"
Moghaddam also said the ease and anonymity of the Internet have helped bring like-minded zealots together.
"It may be that 50 years ago, there would be 200 people who would like to express support for this kind of action but they couldn't, because there was nobody in their neighborhood to connect with," the professor said.
‘We never advocate violence’
Stack has not been linked to any specific political philosophy or party, though his anti-government views are sometimes espoused by Tea Party members in Texas who have supported Medina's surprising run against Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Phillip Dennis, a leader of the 15,000-member Dallas Tea Party, disavowed any connection to Stack.
"We never advocate violence and overthrow of the government," Dennis said. "We have a framework to solve problems, and that framework does not include flying airplanes into buildings."
What Stack did do, Dennis said, was "tap into some people's anger with a large and growing government, a government that doesn't listen to the people."
The family of Vernon Hunter, the longtime IRS employee and father of six who was killed in the suicide attack, rejected any suggestion Stack was a hero.
"How can you call someone a hero who after he burns down his house, he gets into his plane ... and flies it into a building to kill people?" Hunter's son, Ken Hunter, told "Good Morning America." "My dad Vernon did two tours of duty in Vietnam. My dad's a hero."