In the wake of yet another brutal massacre in the US, it's important to talk about stochastic terrorism: what it is, how it manifests, and what can be done about it, to stop the next senseless loss of life to hate.
Humans are highly suggestible. We yawn together. We laugh together. And when given a sense of belonging, of shared identity, we flock together. Sometimes in wonderful, constructive ways. Other times, in ways that drive us to a deepening hatred of our fellow human beings. Other times, into overt violence against them.
In the US this weekend, Club Q in Colorado Springs joined a long list of places struck by concrete violence informed by a broader cultivation of hate. The term for this terrible outcome is “stochastic terrorism”: when an act of public violence is individually unpredictable (i.e. in terms of exact date, target, perpetrator), but also statistically predictable, based on a series of preceding factors, such as sustained hate-mongering from prominent media sources.
It’s a relatively recent term that has a long history of case studies. Classic examples include the dehumanizing language ascribed to Jewish people ahead of the Holocaust, and Tutsi people ahead of the Rwandan genocide. But it was Gabrielle Giffords, shot in 2011 after appearing in the “crosshairs” of Sarah Palin’s campaign ads, who prompted Daily Kos writer “G2Geek” to bring the term into popular discourse. (Six others, including a nine year old, were killed in that attack, and fourteen others sustained injuries.) As G2Geek wrote,
The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media to broadcast memes that incite unstable people to commit violent acts.
One or more unstable people responds to the incitement by becoming a lone wolf and committing a violent act. While their action may have been statistically predictable (e.g. “given the provocation, someone will probably do such-and-such”), the specific person and the specific act are not predictable (yet).
The stochastic terrorist then has plausible deniability: “Oh, it was just a lone nut, nobody could have predicted he would do that, and I’m not responsible for what people in my audience do.”
The lone wolf who was the “missile” gets captured and sentenced to life in prison, while the stochastic terrorist keeps his prime time slot and goes on to incite more lone wolves.
In Colorado Springs on Sunday, November 20, a mass shooting in a prominent gay bar yielded 25 injured and five dead human beings, before the shooter was stopped by two citizens who bravely fought him off. Violence against people for gender nonconformity, including being trans and/or queer, also has a long history of emerging from dehumanizing public rhetoric. In recent years, a familiar refrain of queer and trans people as “groomers” and “perverts” has been used to stir up fearmongering and disgust, in large part for campaign purposes among alt-right movements. In the wake of the Club Q massacre, a wide range of public figures immediately identified specific extremist individuals and platforms that have been amplifying hateful rhetoric in recent months.
As Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) noted after the attack:
You can draw a straight line from the false and vile rhetoric about LGBTQ people spread by extremists and amplified across social media, to the nearly 300 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year, to the dozens of attacks on our community like this one.
That this mass shooting took place on the eve of [the] Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we honor the memory of the trans people killed the prior year, deepens the trauma and tragedy for all in the LGBTQ community.
(NB: Colorado Public Radio’s Sarah Bures published a list of resources for people hurting, or looking to give aid, in the wake of this latest attack.)
But stochastic terrorism is difficult for many to accept, because it means reckoning with a deep lie built into many of our cultures: namely, that we are ever completely independent thinkers, coming to our conclusions in a magically rationalist vacuum. Because stochastic terrorism most commonly emerges from right-wing and alt-right messaging, it also often reads as a “liberal attack”, a mere artifact of political spin, when really, we all need to accept that our species is highly susceptible to environmental inputs, and any radicalization that emerges from them.
Only when we bear up to what it means to be human can we frame more appropriate policies to tackle the very real threat of hate-mongering in public forums.
The research around stochastic terrorism
After G2Geek’s initial post, a wealth of political analysis further advanced the concept of stochastic terrorism. In early November alone, Scientific American, Vox, and Business Insider published work on the extremist violence arising from public rhetoric, with the first of these three highlighting research into the role of human disgust, as a behavioral response with strong associations to conservative traits, in cultivating these outcomes.
In 2015, psychologist Valerie Tarico offered a formula for this terrorist modality, as it emerged in the November 27, 2015 mass shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic, which left three dead and nine wounded. Gerard Gill of the Global Network on Extremism & Technology refined her comments, in the wake of an Australian incident involving a man encouraging violent attack on their parliament, to the “four Ds” of stochastic terrorist action: demonization (blaming a person or demographic for specific social ills), dehumanization (through repetition of demonization, stripping the target of its personhood in the eyes of the audience), desensitization (of the audience to violent rhetoric), and denial (after the fact).
But perhaps the most important facet of defining a term is identifying its boundaries. That’s where Molly Amman and J. Reid Meloy’s 2021 “Stochastic Terrorism: A Linguistic and Psychological Analysis” (Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 15, Issue 5) offers key insight. Critically, they highlight that public performance of opinions routinely follows a “threat-fear-solution” script. How, then, can we differentiate between a fairly normative approach to political rhetoric, and one that has abundantly yielded brutal real-world outcomes?
The answer for them is two-fold. The article concludes by exploring terrorist risk assessment indicators, such as pathway (does the person have a plan), identification (especially with a warrior modality), and fixation (clear preoccupation with a singular group, person, or objective). But before arriving at these late-stage elements on the attacker‘s side, the authors first explore the process of legitimation on the part of the public speaker. Legitimation involves linguistic behaviors used to create “broad social mobilization around a common goal” by establishing the speaker’s authority. As they note,
In addition to the rhetorical devices of the speaker, legitimation is aided by praise of the speaker’s values and vision, his or her sanity and justification, and rightful authority; it can be accomplished by the speaker or her/his surrogates, and it can be spontaneous or crafted by the object of praise. The darker side of legitimation is, of course, delegitimation of an opposing viewpoint, person or group. This strategy is frequently used in American political speech as a means of making a speaker’s proposal that much more attractive when weighed against the “bad” choice. Delegitimation involves attacking the motives, justification, intelligence or even sanity of the “other;” blaming and scapegoating the other for society’s troubles; marginalizing or devaluing the other on a personal level; and even dehumanizing the oppositional other.
However, as the savvy reader will no doubt recognize, there is an immediate issue with trying to tackle stochastic terrorism with these parameters alone.
Indeed, an obvious counterpoint rears its head whenever this topic arises. What about all the awful things liberal-progressives say about other groups? Isn’t that demonizing, too?
What about the “irredeemable” “basket of deplorables” comment?
What about BIPOC individuals who express frustration with racialization and its racist outcomes by openly expressing distrust or even hatred of “white people”?
What about the people who use dehumanizing terms for Republicans and alt-right groups?
Isn’t that “just as bad”? Shouldn’t we get “our” house in order before condemning others?
I don’t use such terms myself. (I am extremely cautious about any terminology for my fellow human beings that gets them off the hook for individual actions.)
But it is also very important to confront these very real outliers, because dismissing their existence doesn’t get us to the crux of the human behavior at fault. And it is human behavior that drives stochastic terrorism: because Republicans aren’t from Mars, and Democrats aren’t from Venus. The delight that one human might get from dehumanizing another is not the sign of a creature from another species, or planet, much as we might wish it were.
Many of us, across the spectrum, can be driven to delight in another’s suffering. And that is a behavior we need to recognize as in our realm of possibility—so we can nip it in the bud.
A pathway to solutions
At present, the overwhelming manifestation of hate-mongering in real-world violence is alt-right: extremist groups whose attacks range from individual targets (like Nancy Pelosi’s husband, while trying to reach her), to marginalized groups including the LGBTQ+ community, to the whole of sitting government. These shows of violence are aligned with strong indicators of conservative identity, including a fear of contamination via border-crossing (figurative, via gender-nonconformity, and literal, as with xenophobia). And that fact doesn’t disappear just because others use dehumanizing rhetoric, too. So let’s not let fall for the bait of quarrelling over whether “there’s a difference”.
Dehumanizing rhetoric is always non-ideal, and always makes us susceptible to doing harm.
The question is, which pathways are most directly fomenting this latest harm?
And how can we de-escalate them?
The US does not have robust protections against hate speech. Any legal changes would immediately stir up a highly selective “free speech” crowd (i.e., “free speech for me but not for thee”). It’s not an impossibility, but it would be a Herculean challenge to pass robust anti-hate-speech legislation in the current US political landscape.
A more homegrown solution emerged with recent verdicts against Alex Jones, for Sandy Hook conspiracy theories that inspired listeners to terrorize grieving parents. But the lawsuits that landed him with over a billion dollars in eventual fines both a) came too late to prevent the trauma, and b) failed to address the media systems that propped up his fake news for years.
Another set of solutions is part of an annual Thanksgiving tradition: discussion about how to discuss politics (or not) around the upcoming seasonal dinner. On the most recent episode of Offline, Jon Favreau talked to Beth Goldberg about her work at Jigsaw, a Google team that researches threats to open society, and looks for digital solutions to misinformation and disinformation. They explore strategies and perspectives that can help us tackle hate on a more personal level. These include “pre-bunking” (inoculation against conspiracy theories before they land, by giving folks the tools to self-identify, in a highly “American individualist” way, when they’re being emotionally manipulated), and seeding doubt by following up with open curiosity about conspiracy predictions that did not come true.
But one of the biggest conclusions is also, for many supposed rationalists and empiricists in the atheist spectrum, the hardest to accept. We’re often given to believe that “the facts don’t care about your feelings”; and yet, human behavior shows us time and again that “the facts” rarely suffice to detangle identity positions that we’ve come to through feelings of alienation, fear, disgust, and hate. This is why, when it comes to the people in our circles who seem most susceptible to hateful rhetoric, we fare better when we can speak to the human cost of all their time spent glued to forums, and when we can find alternative activities to help feed the vacuum of community, belonging, and purpose in their lives.
Lives lost, and lives irrevocably transformed
The Colorado Springs massacre has invoked deep trauma in the LGBTQ+ community, which this year also saw a gunman kill two and injure 21 in Oslo, Norway, and dozens of attacks on queer and trans events from extremist groups in the US. This brutal attack invokes, too, the horrific Pulse massacre in Orlando, Florida in 2016, which took 49 lives, injuring 53 more.
And yet, as is so often the case, we have to be proactive even in our grief.
Stochastic terrorism is a grave threat to open society, unacceptably emboldened by our current state of discourse. Individually, locally, and nationally, more must be done—and not just for all we’ve failed to date, but also for all we will fail, if we don’t address this now.