Seven Deadly Traits

Decoding the confession of the Austin plane bomber.

The scene of Stack’s performance murder

Joseph Stack spent months on his manifesto. He was adamant about convincing us—or himself—why flying his plane into an IRS building was an act of charity.

The five-page rant the software engineer wrote before his performance murder is illogical, hysterical, hyperbolic, and deeply dishonest. Stack’s convoluted arguments explain nothing, and the thumbnail sketch of his impoverished life is absurd. And that’s exactly why it’s so revealing. The software engineer tried to con us with a deceptive self-portrait, but the real Joseph Stack reveals himself in the way he concocts it. 

I’ve spent 11 years studying routes to mass murder, in particular for a   book on the Columbine school shootings, and it’s startling how similar all the manifestos sound. Many of Stack’s passages were practically lifted right out of the diatribes of Eric Harris, the Columbine mastermind. Yet while the notes are the same, the tune is not. Harris was a textbook psychopath, and Stack doesn’t read that way at all. Stack has more empathy, less callousness, and none of the vicious desire to torment others for enjoyment. There are echoes of Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui here, but Stack forms coherent thoughts and speaks rationally. He gives no indication of insanity. Instead, Stack shares Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh’s disgust with intrusive government and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s angry frustration at “the system.”

Each of those killers were driven by different motives. Yet they shared hallmark traits of a man headed off the rails. I spoke with several experts in mass murder Thursday, and we identified seven deadly traits of impending danger in Stack’s manifesto.

Narcissism/egocentricity: Joseph Stack ended his life with a supreme act of narcissism, and that quality leaps out of every line of his rationalization. It’s all about him. Through 30 years of his torture, “thieves, liars and self-serving scumbags” in Congress continually targeted Stack personally. The IRS and his own accountant joined in to make him their personal whipping boy. When the Senate redrew the tax code in 1986, “they may as well have put my name right in the text of section (d),” Stack writes.

Grandiosity: Stack’s grievances are wildly overblown and his swipes at powerful institutions grand and hyperbolic: “the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church … monsters of organized religion,” “thugs and plunderers” in corporate boardrooms driven by “gluttony and overwhelming stupidity” committing “unthinkable atrocities.” More comical is Stack’s portrait of his own misery. As a fuller, objective emerges, we’re likely to see more dramatic chasms between reality and his depictions, but the contradictions are already comical. Stack likens his plight to an elderly woman in the neighborhood living on cat food. He doesn’t mention eating it in the cockpit of his private plane. In Stack’s version, he lived and died a pauper. In real life, he amassed a series of businesses, a $230,000 home in an affluent community, and the airplane he crashed into the building.

Martyr/injustice collector: Killers like Stack love to project themselves as martyrs, but that thinking often emerges from a long history of collecting injustices, while ignoring his ever-growing wealth. Big Brother “strips my carcass,” Stack complains. His antagonists are merciless: “[A]s usual, they left me to rot and die.” He complains that the 1986 tax revision might as well as “directly declared me a criminal and non-citizen slave.”

Superiority masking self-loathing (projection): Stack lashes out at “the incredible stupidity of the American public”: “brainwashed” “zombies” who follow along dutifully, incapable of his keen insights to look right through the horror of “the real American nightmare.” It’s a feeble claim of superiority, when the entire treatise reeks of self-loathing. Stark ends with an attack on capitalism—”From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.” But this is not a man who rejected the system. He only rejected the idea of paying his taxes. He spent his life creating businesses, working the system, and constantly keeping score with his bank balance. Stack embraced capitalism and then convinced himself he was a dismal failure at it.

There is a strong hint of projection in Stack’s thinking. When he complains of moving to a better life in Austin and discovering “a place with a highly inflated sense of self-importance,” he might as well be describing the document he’s composing. Projection is common among depressed people, who take a personal trait they despise in themselves and apply it to something external to bat around and ridicule. The televangelist who decries immorality in the midst of an affair is a classic example. It looks to us like conscious hypocrisy, but it’s really just a dirty little reusable tool for him to beat up on his own sins.

Isolationist thinking: This served as an aggravating factor for Stack. He presents himself as battling a monolithic series of adversaries: big business, big government, Big Brother, big religion. He sees himself as a shrunken David unable to match this Goliath. There is a suggestion of paranoia here. Stack is a supremely unreliable narrator of his own story, but he does seem to have created real financial hardship for himself. When he repeatedly chose not to pay his taxes, one or more of his business licenses was suspended.

That seems to be at the heart of Stack’s whole mess. Unnamed, but ever-present in his commentary, is his immersion in a fringe group or groups who believed they were exempt from the federal income tax. By his account, Stack devoted enormous time, energy, and possibly money to this cause.

Stack made some awful choices on his taxes, but surrounding himself with like-minded zealots may have been just as dangerous in the long run. In his insightful FBI study “The Lethal Triad,” Dr. Kevin Gilmartin describes intellectual isolation as a key factor when extremists lash out violently. It’s counterintuitive, but joining certain groups can be more isolating than living alone. Stack found a group that encouraged and validated the idea of avoiding taxation, which might have been difficult for him to sustain on his own. The moral support he found appears to have helped him sustain a rather nutty concept for 20 to 30 years, in spite of the economic distress it inflicted on him.

Construing selfishness as selflessness: Stack needed a coping strategy, a rationalization for his financial failure. He found one in patriotism. Sure, it may look like greed to keep 100 percent of your paycheck, but Stack was doing it all for us! And, oh, the price he paid. “That little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0.”

Helplessness/hopelessness: Joseph Stack committed both homicide and suicide this week, but all the signs point to suicide as the driver. The FBI trains hostage negotiators to look for two clear signals that a perpetrator is likely to do himself in. Helplessness is the sense that I can’t get things to work out. Hopelessness sets in when that belief becomes permanent: The helplessness is here to stay. Stack’s manifesto reeks of both. He felt powerless and took control in the only way he knew he could “win.” He was pretty sure that if he crashed that plane his life would end. He just needed a way to justify it.

That’s where the first four symptoms—narcissism, grandiosity, superiority, and martyrdom—came back into play. Performance murders like Stack’s are narcissism taken to its worst extreme. Lots of people will die, most of them innocent, but sorry, I had to kill them to make my point. It’s all about me.

Stack also had the grandiose idea that he was on a mission. “By striking a nerve,” he hopes “the American zombies wake up and revolt.” (Really? Because that’s how we have responded to previous acts of performance murder?) As he wrapped up his manifesto and his life, Stack returned to the martyr theme. He was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, for us.

But there’s a problem with this part of the story. Before Stack crashed the plane, he burned his family out of its home. How to justify that vindictive act in the diatribe?

Stack just left it out.

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