Of all government agencies, it is the one Americans most love to hate.
Over the years, offices of the Internal Revenue Service have been bombed, burned and rammed. IRS employees are subject to so much abuse that the agency has an entire protocol for reporting "assaults, threats, harassment or forcible interference.''
There's even a special designation for those who do the threatening, assaulting or interfering: Potentially Dangerous Taxpayer or PDT.
The ire many Americans feel toward the IRS was lethally illustrated Thursday when Andrew Joseph Stack, a Texas software engineer, flew his single-engine plane into a building that housed 190 IRS workers in Austin. The crash killed Stack and one other person.
"Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well,'' Stack wrote in an online message detailing several disputes with the agency that he claimed cost him more than $40,000.
In theory, taxes are one of the world's great equalizers: "Nothing is certain but death and taxes'' goes the old saw. But it's a common feeling: I'm shouldering more than my share of the tax burden while those rich cats are getting off scot-free.
"There are many stories floating around, some urban legends, about how major corporations never have to pay taxes. So people can develop a sense of victimization, a sense of grievance, a sense of anger,'' says Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League, which has studied tax extremism.
"As far as I know, the IRS is the only government agency that has another government agency devoted especially to protecting it. That illustrates how much anger can actually be generated against the IRS.''
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration handled more than 1,200 threat and assault cases between 2001 and 2008, the Washington Post reported, resulting in numerous indictments and convictions.
Last year, Polk County businessman Randy Nowak was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill an IRS agent and torch the agency's Lakeland office. Prosecutors said Nowak wanted the agent out of the way because he feared what she might uncover in investigating his taxes.
Another Floridian, Jack Dowell, was sentenced to at least 30 years after he and a cohort were found guilty of a 1997 arson that destroyed IRS offices in Colorado Springs. The same year, a California woman was accused, but not convicted, of assaulting an IRS agent trying to collect a $259,000 lien against her company.
IRS collection agents — those who actually seize the Picassos, cars and vacation cottages to satisfy tax liens — are the most vulnerable to taxpayer wrath, according to retired agent Alan Spiegel of San Diego.
"They get hassled all the time,'' he said in a phone interview Friday. "There was even a push on at one time to have certain collection agents be allowed to carry guns." (They don't.)
In his own career as an IRS auditor, Spiegel was repeatedly told to watch his back. One irate Hispanic man even warned that "you better not go down to Tijuana anymore.''
Spiegel retired eight years ago and, as a certified public accountant, now sees the agency from the taxpayer's point of view. It isn't always a flattering one.
"I had an IRS collection officer tell me she did not care what happened to my clients or why taxes were owed — she was only interested in collecting the money. The husband was a quadriplegic, the wife was dying of cancer, and the collection office said, 'I don't care.' ''
In 1862, Congress created the Office of the Commission of Internal Revenue and enacted an income tax to pay Civil War expenses. The name was formally changed to the Internal Revenue Service in 1953.
That was the same period that saw the start of the Tax Protest Movement, an extremist, anti-government movement "that believed you have no obligation to pay income taxes and that a government conspiracy is hiding that fact,'' says Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League.
The movement took off in 1997 when Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings on IRS abuses and stripped the agency of much of its budget for audits and investigations. After the Bush administration restored the bulk of the funding in 2004, the IRS resumed its pursuit of tax scofflaws, and a number of the movement's leaders went to prison.
With the Tax Protest Movement in decline, some of the anger against the IRS now finds an outlet in the tea party movement. Its "focus is not actually on taxes, but basically hostility to the Obama administration in any capacity,'' Pitcavage says. "They often talk about taxes, but they talk about other things, too."
Potentially the most worrisome people are the ones he calls "lone wolves,'' such as Stack, the Austin pilot. Though Stack's writings show he may have been loosely involved with the Tax Protest Movement in the 1980s, he apparently was not affiliated with any group.
Stack was "sort of a homegrown, self-taught extremist," Pitcavage says "This lone wolf violence is the hardest for law enforcement to deal with.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.