The motives of the man who attacked an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs, killing at least five patrons and wounding 18 others, were not yet established by law enforcement when a familiar impulse overtook the commentariat. We cannot blame mass violence on only the violent, a growing chorus insists. Whole sectors of society are to blame. Understandably aggrieved, those maligned sectors of society rebel against this narrative, casting their own aspersions on their political opponents. This cycle has become so common it would be banal if it weren’t also so ghoulish.
If there’s anything distinctive about this particular cycle, it’s that the sordid impulse to blame your political adversaries for the machinations of an addled mind has been ornamented with pseudo-academic language. In one polysyllabic stroke, the passive experience of “radicalization” has become the deliberate result of an active conspiracy. They call it “stochastic terrorism.”
Writing in the secularist magazine Only Sky, M. L. Clark defines the phenomenon as a means by which the seemingly random and inexplicable might be explained by “preceding factors” subject to the divination of the properly initiated (a secular approach to the subject if there ever was one). She notes that the term was popularized in this context after Sarah Palin allegedly inspired a schizophrenic to attempt the murder of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords. Somehow, the concept’s credibility survived its origin story.
The American right, broadly, owns the bloodshed in Colorado because it occurred against the backdrop of a political culture that supposedly tolerates “eliminationist rhetoric.” When the far right experiences no social penalty for “demonizing and dehumanizing” LGBTQ activists, it legitimizes violent expressions of bigotry,” writes Daily Kos staff writer David Neiwert. “This is exactly how stochastic terrorism works.”
The phrase was laundered into respectable discourse following the attack on Paul Pelosi. Citing “terrorism and extremism experts,” Reuters implied—and implication is all that is on offer—that the violent acts of “unstable individuals” such as Pelosi’s assailant can be triggered by irresponsible speech, “so-called stochastic terrorism.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unraveled the phenomenon by making it about herself. “This is like what stochastic terrorism is,” she said of the harassment she receives from Fox News Channel viewers. “When you use a very large platform to turn up the temperature and target an individual until something happens.”
Ocasio-Cortez blamed Fox’s Tucker Carlson “specifically” for acts of political violence. In Scientific American, the author Bryn Nelson agreed. The idea is that figures like Carlson and the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, among others, invite acts of terroristic acts by agitating their audiences against the sexualized content that is being made available to children in the name of inclusivity. “What can stop stochastic terrorism and break the cycle of disgust-fueled vilification, threats, and violence?” Nelson asks. “Turning off the source of fuel is a start.”
Thus, we are at long last treated to the utility of this concept. Of course, no one is calling for something as crass as the outright censorship of unpopular speech (the only speech that is ever threatened). But appealing to the right’s better angels is now deemed a waste of time. Where advocating prudence and responsibility in the discourse failed, reconceptualizing speech policing as the preservation of domestic security might succeed.
Though acts of terroristic violence by clear-eyed and sober individuals with a coherent political program are few and far between, unstable individuals can and do respond irrationally to incentives the rational would not recognize. It’s a bipartisan phenomenon. The kind of nihilism that displays no regard for human life is a sadly familiar sort. But what about the nihilism we see in response to violence? A nihilism that regards the violent as disfigured products of their environments, which in turn obliges good citizens to dismantle the structures that supposedly produced these beasts.
Controlling the information environment that contributes to the radicalization of the mentally unwell, according to NBC News disinformation reporter Ben Collins, is the least the journalistic community can do to contribute to our collective safety. “Are we more afraid of being on Breitbart for saying that trans people deserve to be alive or are we more afraid of the dead people?” he asks. Outmoded journalistic conventions like objectivity have to go.
In M.L. Clark’s telling, the constitutional protections afforded free speech are a problem, but so, too, are our attachment to individual liberty and personal responsibility. They give us permission to shirk our duty to police aberrant thought wherever we encounter it. On a personal level, American University’s Kurt Braddock advocated “attitudinal inoculation”—a fancy way of saying early psychological intervention—for those susceptible to paranoia and manipulation. But that’s going to be a failed enterprise in a political culture that does not impose “federal responsibility” on irresponsible political actors, whatever that means.
In its deep dive into the right’s crusade on “stochastic terrorism,” Insider cites the author of a 2017 book on self-radicalized Islamist terrorists, Ramon Spaaij, who noted that this violence is an outgrowth of the right’s newfound hostility toward existing institutions. “The ongoing delegitimization of such institutions — as well as the people who operate within those institutions — creates an environment that then lowers the threshold for and legitimizes violence as a result,” says Insider’s report. But the cure looks an awful lot like the disease. What is the attack on pre-existing American legal conventions and political philosophy but a campaign to delegitimize its institutions?
Almost to an individual, those attracted to the explanatory power of “stochastic terrorism” lament the complacency of the American voting public. Why, they mourn, don’t Americans demand more responsibility from their talking heads and better politics from their politicians? They do, at least if we assume they’re voting with their feet.
Cable news ratings are down, as are the number of Americans who affiliate with either major political party. A smaller, more homogenous in-group will tolerate, even incentivize, extremism. That is as evident in rabble-rousing prime-time monologues as it is in self-selected social-media bubbles, yes. It is just as apparent in the degree to which the monocultural media adopted a phrase that put a highbrow gloss onto an idea as old and basic as scapegoating.
It seems unlikely that the cure for the ills of violent nihilism is a less violent nihilism. The theory’s lack of practical applicability exposes it for what it is: more rhetorical ammunition to be deployed in an unending campaign of partisan warfare. It’s enough to drive you mad. At least if you’re susceptible to that sort of thing.