I posted this 4 1/2 years ago. This morning Jake Tapper-trying to use the word he had just learned from interviewing Juliette Kayyem–said “schotastic.”
stochastic terrorism: the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.
Until today, I’d only encountered the word “stochastic” in the economic term dynamic stochastic general equilibrium. (Don’t ask me what it means). The latest addition to my political vocabulary is stochastic terrorism. For the average person, it’s simpler and infinitely more useful.
Stochastic means having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely. There doesn’t seem to be much of any literature on the subject of stochastic terrorism, but nonetheless, it provides a useful label for describing the actions of the right-wing noise machine and a credible hypothesis for its effects. Once upon a time, it would have taken a Bircher to produce the kind of rhetoric and a major league demagogue to have any effect. Today, it’s part and parcel of the Republican presidential campaign. This week the terrorist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic. In June, it was Dylann Roof shooting up an African American church and some members of its congregation.
Raw Story gives Cliffs notes explanation of stochastic terrorism:
In an incident of stochastic terrorism, the person who pulls the trigger gets the blame. He—I use the male pronoun deliberately because the triggerman is almost always male—may go to jail or even be killed during his act of violence. Meanwhile, the person or persons who have triggered the triggerman, in other words, the actual stochastic terrorists, often go free, protected by plausible deniability. The formula is perversely brilliant:
A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”
The usefulness of the term stochastic terrorism is that it provides a label for a phenomenon and an explanation for how it works. Thoughtful people can certainly disagree about the exact relationship between right-wing extremist rhetoric and lone-wolf terrorism, but it’s hard to dispute the fact that words have consequences and that terrorists get their ideas and energy from somewhere. Anti-abortion terrorism is real. As Raw Story enumerates the shootings since 1993:
- March 10, 1993: Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida was shot and killed after being depicted in “Wanted Posters” by Operation Rescue.
- July 29, 1994: Dr. John Britton and a clinic escort, James Barrett, were both shot to death outside another Florida clinic, which has been bombed twice including in 2012.
- December 30, 1994: Two receptionists, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, were shot and killed in Brookline, Massachusetts by an abortion foe who had previously attempted murder in Virginia.
- January 29, 1998: Robert Sanderson, a security guard at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, died when the clinic was bombed.
- October 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett Slepian was killed at his home in Amherst, New York, by a shooter with a high-powered rifle.
- May 31, 2009: Dr. George Tiller, who provided late term abortions, was shot and killed in the lobby of his church, where he was serving as an usher.
- November 27, 2015: Two civilians and a police officer died during a five hour siege in which a “lone wolf” assaulted patients and providers at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs.
This list does not include the vandalism, threatening phone calls, assaults, and worse–at least one clinic was set on fire–suffered by an organization that provides legal health care service for women. Some people have a hard time referring to the more extreme acts on this list as terrorism. That’s denial. It’s time we call it what it is. Stochastic terrorism may be a mouthful, but it’s a concept that has long needed a name.