Joe Stack had simply had enough. Every time this fifty-three-year-old independent engineer and software consultant from Austin, Texas, had set aside any money at all for retirement, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seemed to change the tax laws or whittled away at his earnings with new restrictions. A change in the income-tax regulations in 1986 had removed an exemption for software consultants and engineers, effectively consigning them, in his eyes, to low-income wage work. He just couldn’t catch a break. He’d moved from Los Angeles to Austin, remarried, hoping to get better contract consulting work, but the wages in Texas were paltry compared with Southern California. Increasingly despairing that he would never get back on his feet, he began to see the IRS as an agent of discrimination against honest working people, while corporate fat cats got bailed out. Adding insult to injury, they’d recently initiated yet another audit against him.
On the morning of February 18, 2010, he snapped. Perhaps snap is the wrong word; it’s too sudden, too precipitous. From Joe’s perspective, he’d already bent far past the breaking point. He just couldn’t bend anymore, couldn’t accommodate all that weight. That Thursday morning, he set fire to his small house in North Austin. He then drove to a hangar that he rented at the Georgetown Municipal Airport and cleared his single-engine Piper airplane for takeoff. “Thanks for your help,” he told the control tower as he left the airfield at 9:45. “Have a great day!”
Ten minutes later, he flew the plane directly into Echelon I, the building in a near-downtown Austin office complex that housed the IRS. The fully fueled plane exploded into a fireball, killing the pilot and also IRS manager Vernon Hunter, a sixty-three-year-old father of six. Thirteen others were injured, two seriously.
In the immediate media flurry, Stack was portrayed as a deranged individual, which, no doubt, he was. But he had hardly acted spontaneously. Indeed, as with so many of these deranged lone wolves who seem to explode one day out of the blue, Stack’s explosion had been brewing for some time. Later that day, investigators found a lengthy suicide note, which Stack had written and revised over the previous three days. In this rambling diatribe against the forces that he believed had led him to this murderously suicidal rampage, Stack just couldn’t get past the injustice of it all, the fact that there seemed to be two sets of rules—which further widened following the economic meltdown of 2008—one for the rich and powerful and one for the rest of us.
“Why is it,” he asks rhetorically, “that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM [General Motors] executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours?”
He described an eighty-year-old neighbor, a widow of a steelworker who worked in the mills in central Pennsylvania all his life, believing the promises from the mill owners and the unions that he would have a pension and medical care for a secure retirement. “Instead he was one of the thousands who got nothing because the incompetent mill management and corrupt union (not to mention the government) raided their pension funds and stole their retirement,” Stack wrote. “All she had was Social Security to live on.” She survives, he said, on cat food.
Like many other guys these days, Stack was mad as hell. Yes, he flipped out, and yes, he was probably clinically insane. But such arm-chair diagnoses miss the method in his madness, the logic of his psychotic break with reality. Stack considered himself a victim of the impersonal forces that wreak havoc with the lives and the futures of America’s middle and working classes—the labyrinthine impersonal governmental bureaucracies and the impenetrable corporations whose CEOs and shareholders were lavishly compensated. Joe Stack was Joe Sixpack, Joe Lunchbucket, Joe the Plumber. He was a New Economy Everyman. Everything piled up on him, and he just lost it.
So Joe Stack “went postal,” as that new phrase coined during the Reagan era put it, named after that spate of rampage murders in which US Postal Service (USPS) workers shot and killed managers, supervisors, and fellow workers. Between 1986 and 1997, forty people were murdered in at least twenty incidents involving postal workers. Before 1986—nary a one. What happened?
Reaganomics happened. Under a Reagan-era policy, the USPS stopped receiving federal tax moneys starting in the early 1980s and was pushed to streamline its operations to maximize efficiency, including cutting wages, firing staff, and slashing benefits. The workers who went postal were all post-office workers who had been laid off or downsized or had their benefits slashed.
One such worker was Patrick Sherrill, the postal worker who started the “trend” and launched that tragic neologism. On August 20, 1986, Sherrill walked through the post office in Edmond, Oklahoma, where he worked, targeting his supervisors and several coworkers. By the time he was done, fifteen postal employees lay dead, and another six were injured—at the time, the third-largest massacre in American history. The last bullet he reserved for himself. As the police arrived on the scene, they heard only one shot.
Yes, Stack and Sherrill were insane, but they were also familiar. They didn’t start out mad. No, they were driven crazy by the sense that the world had spun so far off its axis that there was no hope of righting it. Underneath that sense of victimhood, that sense that the corporations and the government were coconspirators in perpetrating the great fleecing of the American common man, lay a defining despair in making things right. And under that despair lay their tragic flaw, a deep and abiding faith in America, in its institutions and its ideals. Like Willy Loman, perhaps the quintessential true believer in the ideology of self-made American masculinity, they believed that if they worked hard and lived right, they, too, could share in the American Dream. When it is revealed that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, that dreams are for Disneyland, then they morph into a tragic American Everymen, defeated by circumstances instead of rising above them.
Stack and Sherrill believed in that America. They believed that there was a contract between themselves, and guys like them, and the government “of the people” that is supposed to represent us. They believed in the corporations that they worked for, confident in the knowledge that they could support a family, enjoy a secure retirement, and provide for their families. That contract was the stable foundation for several generations of America’s working men—an implied but inviolable understanding between businesses and workers, between government and employers. They had kept the faith, fulfilled their part of the bargain. And somehow their share had been snatched away by faceless, feckless hands. They had played by all the rules, only to find the game was rigged from the start.
It feels like even the unions have betrayed them. At their origin, the union movement established the baseline that enabled working- and middle-class American men to plant a stake in the American Dream. The relentless recent attacks on unions, both in the public sector and in private companies, and the self-serving corruption in many unions that legitimized those attacks have hit lower-middle-class and working-class men the hardest—the same group that is now most ardently antiunion. It’s a tragic irony of the American worker—they’ve been persuaded to put their trust in the very companies that betray them and shun the organizations that once protected them.
Generations of men had staked their claim for manhood on being good family providers, reliable breadwinners. It has been the defining feature of American manhood since the early nineteenth century. With neither a feudal aristocracy nor clerical indulgence, American manhood was defined in opposition to the European version, where rank and birth and blood determined your fate. Here, in the American Eden, all was new and naked, and a man could rise as high as his talents and aspirations and hard work could take him.
He could do that because he assumed the playing field was level. But all that has changed in America. The playing field is no longer level. Of course, it never was; it had always tilted decidedly in favor of middle-class white men. But what has changed is the angle of that tilt. On the one hand, it’s not quite so lopsided, as more of “them” seem to be catching up with “us.” On the other hand, it’s more dramatically lopsided than it has been since the Gilded Age—and perhaps even more than that. The gap between the middle class and the rich has never been as large as it now is in the United States. Today, the United States is coming to resemble prerevolutionary France, with teeming masses who have less and less and a noble few who tweet about twenty-five-dollar cupcakes. Although a higher percentage of white people now believe that they are the victims of discrimination than do black people, they fail to see the very rich white people who are doing massively better.
But these middle-class white men are right in one sense: the social contract that enabled self-made men to feel that they could make it, even if they somehow failed to realize their dreams, has, indeed, been shredded, abandoned for lavish profiteering by the rich, enabled by a government composed of foxes who have long ago abandoned their posts at the henhouse. That safety net, always thin, has been undone by decades of neglect since the establishment of the Great Society in 1960s. There’s a painful sense of betrayal from their government, from the companies to whom we give our lives, from the unions. There was a moral contract, that if we fulfill our duty to society, society will fulfill its duty to us in our retirement, taking care of those who served so loyally.
Although the contract may have been shredded by greedy companies driven by greedier financiers, the sense of entitlement on the part of white men remains intact. Many white men feel they have played by the rules and expected to reap the rewards of that obedient responsibility. It’s pretty infuriating not to get what you feel you deserve. That’s the aggrieved entitlement that lies underneath the anger of American white men.
They had played the game like real men—honorably, honestly. And if they were going to go down, they were going to go down like real men—making somebody pay. Even if they had to die trying.
For decades, every single morning, guys like Joe Stack—middle-class corporate guys, office workers, salesmen, and independent professionals— have lined up to take the 7:23 from Anywhere, USA, to the big city. Every night they’ve returned, briefcase and hat in hand, to their suburban castles. Like characters on Mad Men, they assumed their place in the long line of American breadwinners, of family men. They worked in the city, but were successful enough to escape to the suburbs, where life was greener and safer, where the schools were better for their chilldren. They and their families shopped in malls, mowed their grass, and watched their children ride their bikes.
On the other side of the tracks, working-class guys like Patrick Sherrill have driven their pickup trucks to work in America’s factories, producing the cars we crave, the clothes we wear, the stuff we use. They have delivered America’s packages, paved America’s roads and built her bridges, and erected the skyscrapers in which corporate moguls reap their fortunes.
But all is not well. There’s a mounting anger underneath those perfectly manicured lawns, and it erupts like small volcanoes in our homes, in our corporate offices, and on those peaceful suburban streets themselves. Jim Anderson (of Father Knows Best) has been supplanted by Homer Simpson, the bumptious blowhard who’s neither a stable family man nor a reliable employee. In the near–ghost towns of America’s factory cities, white workers seethe into their beers, wondering where it all went wrong—and how it all went to hell so fast. Perhaps more menacingly, some of these obedient men have now been replaced by violent men, who lash out at their spouses, while their sons learn their lessons well, as they drive through suburban neighborhoods looking for immigrants to beat up, and even to kill.
Despite these enormous class differences, these different groups of white men are angry—angry at a system that has so let them down. The most passionate believers in the American Dream, “the Promised Land” Bruce Springsteen sings about, they’ve seen it gradually erode into a postindustrial nightmare, a world of corroding Rust Belt infrastructure and faceless cubicles that dull the senses and numb the soul. The white working class and the white middle class have rarely been so close emotionally as they are today; together they have drifted away from unions, from big government, from the Democratic Party, into the further reaches of the right wing. Together they listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. And together they watched Brad Pitt initiate Ed Norton into “Fight Club,” searching for something— anything—that would feel authentic, that would feel real. Middle-and working-class white men—well, they just are beginning to actually understand each other.
Some non-post-office rampage murders were regular working guys who simply snapped. Take, for example, Joseph Wesbecker, who worked at the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky, a printing plant that exclusively printed the local newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal. For months, even years, managers had refused to listen to Wesbecker’s complaints that operating the folder press was too hard for him, that his workplace-induced stress made it hard for him to perform all the operations of heavy equipment. On September 14, 1989, Wesbecker roamed through the factory floor, purposefully toward the supervisors’ office, opening fire at anyone who had ever crossed him. By the time he put the gun to his own head, seven coworkers lay dead, and another twenty had been wounded.
Others were more corporate, like Gian Luigi Ferri, a chubby fifty-five-year-old businessman who, in 1993, slaughtered seven people and injured six others at the tony, white-shoe downtown San Francisco law firm that had represented him. As the police entered the building, he killed himself.
Some were more in between the have-mores and the have-nots. Matthew Beck was a socially awkward yet conscientious accountant at the Connecticut State Lottery, who had worked diligently for eight years, until, in the summer of 1997, he was unceremoniously passed over for promotion (despite flawless work). He became bitter, angry, and withdrawn, and he began to fall apart. After Beck returned from a two-month medical leave, one of his supervisors added to his workload a particularly demeaning task for a trained accountant, monitoring the use of state cars given to those who had been promoted—that is, those who received perks to which Beck thought he was entitled. He snapped. On March 6, 1998, Beck came to work on a “casual Friday” and stabbed his former supervisor (who was the first to deny his grievance over his nonpromotion), then walked to a staff meeting of several senior staff, and shot the company chief financial officer, his senior supervisor who had also turned down his promotion. He lowered his gun and walked out of the meeting room and through the executive suite where the vice president of operations poked his head out of his office and asked, “Is everything okay?” This VP had also rejected Beck’s promotion, and Beck shot and killed him.
Finally, he confronted the lottery president himself, Otho Brown, in the parking lot of the building. Brown had been the final top authority who had signed off on the rejection of Beck’s promotion. While most of the lottery employees huddled at the edge of the parking lot, in the apparent safety of a grove of trees, Brown stood alone in the lot. Beck’s fellow employees begged him to stop. He calmly shot Brown three times. As the police pulled up, Beck put the pistol to his own head and shot himself. “They were the people who had the power in the Lottery,” said one of the supervisors who was in that meeting room but was spared by Beck. “They were the ones who had turned down his promotion.”
It’s not just white guys, either. On August 2, 2010, Omar Thornton, a thirty-four-year-old black truck driver for a major Connecticut beer distributor, walked into the main office in Hartford and opened fire, killing eight people before turning the gun on himself. According to his girlfriend’s mother, Thornton was a “mellow” guy who had complained for a long time about racial harassment. He claimed to have pictures on his cell phone that he had taken at the distributor—pictures of the N word and hangman’s nooses graffitied on the bathroom walls. No one listened. So he began to take his revenge against a company that he felt was indifferent to his plight; he started stealing cases of beer. Caught on a company video, he was brought in for a disciplinary hearing with his union on that fateful day and offered the choice of being fired or quitting. He chose a horrifying, fatal, third path.
“It’s got nothing to do with race,” commented Teamster official Christopher Roos to a television journalist. “This is a disgruntled employee who shot a bunch of people.” He almost made it sound tame. But in one sense, Roos is right. Thornton may have complained about racial harassment and may have thought there was some racial bias at the distributor. But his actions that fateful day were those of a working man who had snapped. Not a black working man, but a working man.
He was not a working woman. In my research, I could find no cases of working women coming into their workplaces, packing assault weapons, and opening fire, seemingly indiscriminately. It’s not that they don’t get depressed and enraged when they get downsized, laid off, or mistreated, their wages cut, their pensions slashed, or their benefits reduced. Some had brought a handgun and often carried over a domestic-violence dispute into the workplace. They just don’t go postal.
Let’s be clear: just as we cannot understand rampage school shootings by focusing on the fact that they are always committed by boys, neither can we understand these cases simply by recognizing that they’re all men. Surely, too, recognizing that they’re all men doesn’t mean that all men are likely to become deranged mass murderers. Neither, however, can we explain it simply by the easy American access to guns or chalk it up to yet another deranged killer, the standard fare on CSI-like television.
But we can’t ignore it, either. There is no one single explanation. What is required is that we look inside the economic and social shifts inside America’s workplaces and the broader patterns of class in America. Just as we needed to profile the school shooters and their schools, we also need to profile these guys gone postal and the places where they made their living. We need to ask some questions about the changing conditions of work in America, the political economy in which these men became deranged enough to go postal.
THE RATIONALITY OF THE MAD GUNMAN
Most disgruntled male workers don’t go postal, of course. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that well over 99 percent of us don’t bring assault weapons to work, ready to open fire on our coworkers or supervisors. It is telling, though, to listen to how regular folks respond when someone does embark on such a murderous spree. How different are the comments from those of neighbors of, say, serial killers or other mass murderers. When the media or police interview neighbors of serial killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, the typical response is a surprised version of “He was very quiet,” “He kept to himself,” or “We had no idea we were living next door to a monster.”
Not so with the guys who go postal. “You could sorta see it coming” is by far the more likely response. Coworkers and workers in other companies mention the erosion of benefits, the capricious cuts in staff, the constant fears of layoffs and downsizing, the seething resentment at the bonuses the managers pay themselves. They can see it coming. Says one survivor, “There are a lot of people who are sort of on your side. There are people . . . who claim ‘I’m not going to say that he did the right thing, but I can understand where he came from, and maybe if I had been in his spot, I’d have done it too.’”
Over and over, this is what you hear: “I could see it coming,” “If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else,” “What did you expect?” “They’ve been treating us so bad for so long, someone was going to snap.” (That the “someone” is always a man seems to escape everyone’s notice, as if it’s simply the most normal thing in the world for men—and not women—to react this way.)
When the story of Matthew Beck was posted recently to a website, comments were guarded but compassionate. “I can sorta understand why he did it,” wrote one. “I don’t agree with his actions either,” wrote another. “But on some level I understand him.” “You can’t put people down and expect them to take it with a smile,” wrote a third. “I can’t help but feel some sympathy for the shooter. His life must have been hell and I can’t blame him for hating them.”
But let’s be clear: these guys committed murder. Joe Stack flew his plane into the IRS building. This wasn’t just a minor case of road rage. This was an act of domestic terrorism. He attacked a government office, just as Timothy McVeigh had done. But in the aftermath, there was far more sympathy for him among ordinary Americans than there was for McVeigh in 1995. There are entire websites devoted to calling him “an American hero.” Why? For one thing, it wasn’t “political”—that is, Joe Stack wasn’t trying to start a revolution. He was just at the end of his rope, having been jerked around callously by those in charge.
“Oh, c’mon,” says Bill, a patron at a local coffee shop, on the afternoon after Stack’s death, as the news feeds come in over the Internet. He’s sitting at the table next to me. Bill has his laptop open; his cell phone sits next to it on the table. Both are plugged into the only electric outlets nearby, monopolizing them. “Fuck, no,” he says, loud enough for me to hear. I look at him, curious. I hadn’t been anticipating an interview just then. He says it again.
“Did you hear about this guy in Texas? Flew his plane into the IRS office. That’s not terrorism. Not like 9/11. I mean, the guy’d just had it. He was fed up, fucked. Probably thought he had no way out.”
“But why do you think he just snapped that way?” I ask.
“Look at what’s happening,” Bill says. “Everywhere you look, it’s downsizing, outsourcing, laying off. No more pension funds, no more health benefits, no more retirement. He was cornered, and he came out swinging.”
“But he flew his airplane into a building, killing an innocent man and injuring many others. He killed a guy who was probably as trapped as he was. How can you justify that?”
Bill sits for a moment. “I’m not justifying it. I’m not excusing it. But I’m trying to understand it. I think there are a lot of people who sorta feel like they’re at the end of their rope and don’t know what to do. They’re panicking, freaking out, you know? Back in the day, if you got screwed by your company, you could go to the government, get unemployment, get food stamps, whatever, get some help. Now there’s nowhere to go. The government does nothing; the corporations—well, they’re the problem. Nowhere to go.”
“You know,” I say, “you sound like a socialist. The government is in the pockets of the big corporations that are ruled by greed and intent on screwing the workers.”
“Hah!” says Bill. “A socialist! I’m as far from that as you could imagine. I’m an American. Heck, I’d even support the Tea Party if they could get the government out of my wallet. I don’t want to pay more taxes! And I don’t want a bigger government. I want a responsive one. I mean, just look at me, for Christ’s sake.”
Bill, I soon learn, is looking for work, a euphemism for the newly unemployed in the current “he-cession”—the economic recession that has hit men so hard. More than 80 percent of all the jobs lost between November 2008 and December 2010 had been jobs that had been held by men. Sure, most of those have been in manufacturing and especially construction, as the housing boom went south. But the ripples have been felt in midsize local businesses across the country. (Just as surely, there’s been a “he-covery,” as the overwhelming number of new jobs created since 2011 have been jobs that have gone to men, while public-sector jobs, like administrators and teachers and public-sector employees, mostly women, have been laid off by the thousands.)
Bill had been in sales. “But who the fuck is buying anything that anyone is selling?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “I’ll tell you who. Nobody. That’s who. It feels like such a scam, the whole thing, a big Madoff Ponzi scheme where the rich get everything. And this . . . ,” he says, pointing to his technological arsenal on the small table, “well, it’s not helping. We’re all networked up the wazoo, we have every networking device known to man, and yet we can’t find a job. And when you do find one, it’s never as good as the one you had before. Working conditions, benefits, you name it. Always worse, always worse.”
He drifts back to the laptop. If we’d been in a bar, drowning our sorrows, instead of in a coffee shop, trying to stay pumped and focused, this would be the signal to look at his beer and mutter something over and over, under his breath.
Bill expressed so many of the concerns of today’s middle-class and working-class men—the constant downward pressure, a sense that they are no longer climbing the ladder of success but rather just trying to fight off being pushed down the ladder. They feel lucky if they are just holding on.
The deteriorating working conditions, the crap people have to put up with in their jobs, lead to some unlikely heroes. Enter Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who became an instant celebrity after he exploded in a workplace tirade in early August 2010. Working a routine flight from Pittsburgh to New York City, Slater had, witnesses said, already been yelled at by abusive passengers when he had tried to intervene when two passengers were fighting over the overhead space. One of the passengers’ suitcase hit him in the head as it tumbled from the overstuffed overhead bin. As the plane landed and was taxiing to the gate, that same woman stood up and was furious that the gate-checked bag was not immediately available, and she began to curse at him. Slater snapped. He grabbed the intercom, cursed her out right back, grabbed a beer from the stowed service cart, and opened the door of the plane. “That’s it, I’m done,” he said. He inflated the emergency evacuation slide, slid down to the tarmac, and ran off. He was arrested a few hours later.
Immediately, people rallied to his defense. Although his workplace explosion was utterly unprofessional and was gradually revised by other passengers on the plane in a way that made him look a little less heroic, it was Slater’s version of the story that has stuck. He was hailed by Stephen Colbert as the “Alpha Dog of the Week” for his testicular fortitude—he slid down the evacuation slide “using his balls as a sled,” Colbert reported. Late-night hosts scrambled to book him, and his newly enlisted agent is fending off offers for books and television rights.
Whether Slater was “justified” is hardly the point. The public reaction to his antics reveals something important about how many people feel about their jobs. Slater’s classic “take this job and shove it” attitude expressed what millions of Americans seem to feel about their working conditions. People cheer him as a hero.
In that sense, Slater’s actions are understandable, if not justifiable, rational, if not reasonable—not as the flipping out of a madman, but as a desperate effort to draw attention to the miserable conditions that working people endure. More, it’s that conditions have become so much worse, that the social contract has been torn apart by corporate greed and government inaction. Instead of armchair psychologizing by a public tut-tutting their way to self-satisfied judgment, commentators reached for the business sections of the newspapers, reporting the gradual erosion of the friendly skies in today’s cut-throat business climate. Yes, it’s true that passengers have been nickeled and dimed by baggage fees, convenience fees, talk-to-a-real-agent fees, paying for food and beverages and entertainment, and every conceivable additional fee. But the working conditions of the airplane as a workplace have also steadily eroded—and not just because passengers are more irate and more entitled.
Over the past decade, airline passengers have increased from 629 million to 770 million, an 8 percent increase. In 2010 domestic airlines employed about 463,000 full-time workers, compared with 607,307 a decade earlier—a decrease of roughly 8 percent. At the same time, fuel costs have doubled, operating costs have soared, and gate fees and landing fees charged by municipalities to airlines have all risen significantly. That means that profits have to come from the labor side of the economic equation, not the materials side. Sure enough, airline workers have been hit hard by cuts: their salaries have been cut, pensions slashed, health benefits reduced or even eliminated, and various unions abandoned by new airlines and undermined at the old ones.
Airline workers, like their passengers, are being required to do more and more for less and less. And no one, neither the passengers nor those who serve them their drinks, seems to be able to do anything about it. This isn’t just about little bags of pretzels. It’s about daily erosions of those feelings of pride in your work, the compromising of archaic feelings like honor and integrity, self-respect for a job well done. In that sense, Steven Slater did not show what balls he had, as Colbert reported, but rather illustrated just how impotent American workers really feel.
Excerpted from “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era” by Michael Kimmel. Published by Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013 by Michael Kimmel. All rights reserved.