Stochastic Terrorism

I came across a new phrase recently: stochastic terrorism. (My post today is my own reaction to Kottke’s excellent post on the topic.) I’m a fairly well-read individual, so if it’s new to me, I imagine it’s new to a lot of you as well. It’s a term that was coined back in 2011. I think we all know by now what “terrorism” means. “Stochastic” is “having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.” In other words, it’s something that that can be predicted on a large scale, even if individual instances themselves are random.

To put it in boardgame-speak, think of it like the probability of getting a certain number when you roll two six-sided dice. Sure, each individual roll is random, and might result in anything from a two to a twelve, but you do enough of those random rolls, and you’re going to see sevens get rolled way more often than twelves.

When you apply this concept to terrorism, it gets really disturbing. Think of Osama Bin Laden back in the day, releasing videos to the world that called for violence against Americans. Was Bin Laden personally causing that violence? Well, no. He wasn’t going out there with a bomb or a gun to get it done, but his call for violence resulted in people deciding to become violent.

In other words, make a call for action to enough people, and you can reasonably expect some of those people will follow through on that action.

When this phrase was coined in 2011, it was used to accuse some of the right-wing media of inciting Americans to violence. Bill O’Reilly went on an extended tirade against a doctor named George Tiller, and then an anti-abortionist extremist killed Tiller, for example. To be able to practice stochastic terrorism, you need big enough platform to reach a wide audience, and then you need a call to action, however vague that call might be.

So let’s play the “is this stochastic terrorism” game. In each case, assume the person speaking already has the platform covered. The question, then, is “is this a call to action” that would incite someone to violence?

  • “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”
  • “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell … I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.”
  • “You know, part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?”

Has Trump ever come out and said “I hope someone sends mail bombs to my opponents”? Definitely not. Has he said “I hope someone goes to a synagogue and opens fire”? Another obvious no. But I believe you can argue the rhetoric and stance he has taken on numerous issues at numerous times count as “calls to action,” or at the very least could be interpreted as such by people who are already playing with a full deck of cards.

It’s one thing to disagree with people. To call them liars or crooked or whatever. What I really object to is this new trend of opening the door to violence. “Somebody should really do something about ___________,” which might as well be followed with a “Wink wink, nudge nudge.” With great power comes great responsibility, and I’m disappointed that responsibility is being ignored.

I didn’t write anything in the aftermath of the mail bomb incidents. I didn’t write anything after the horrendous synagogue killings. I veered away from both because it’s just too depressing at this point for me to continue to engage with every single event. They’re coming too quickly, too close together. And in my view, the fact that some of our leaders are involved in inciting the violence is unforgivable.

It’s stochastic terrorism.


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