Mainstream media reporters are having a hard time fully explaining the link between the increasingly violent rhetoric from Republican media figures, on the one hand, and violent acts like Thursday’s attempted attack on an FBI office in Cincinnati.
The phrase they’re looking for is “stochastic terrorism.”
It may not trip off the tongue, but it needs to become part of the media lexicon.
Stochastic terrorism means terrorism that’s statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. In simpler language, it means that when Trump or his allies encourage violence — when the say the kind of stuff they say all the time now — it is not just possible that someone at some point will do something about it, it’s damn near inevitable.
Calling certain forms of violent rhetoric stochastic terrorism is essential to holding the perpetrators accountable for the tragic consequences.
When Donald Trump told white supremacists to “stand by” at the September 2020 presidential debate, then summoned them to Washington on January 6 and told them to “fight like hell,” he was engaging in stochastic terrorism.
When Fox personality Jesse Watters says “They’ve declared war on us and now it’s game on,” it’s not just talk. It’s stochastic terrorism.
But news executives who have normalized this kind of rhetoric over the last six years aren’t ready to go that far.
So corporate-media newspapers, cable channels and broadcast networks have been avoiding the term “stochastic terrorism” like the plague.
By contrast, here’s how Mother Jones’s excellent definition, from their style guide:
A method of inciting extremist political violence by using rhetoric ambiguous enough to give the speaker and the speaker’s allies plausible deniability for any resulting bloodshed. For more, see Mark Follman’s reporting here and here.
In a rare mention of the term on cable, Clint Watts, who consults on online extremism, said on MSNBC Thursday:
What’s consistent in all of this is we’re seeing this pattern of what’s known as stochastic terrorism happening over and over, meaning that a leader — a political leader, a former president — they put out false information, conspiracies, that actually make claims or encourage people to mobilize or commit violence. The problem is the target is known but the attacker is not, much like today, we don’t know who the individual is that is gonna take up arms and trying to assault an FBI building or attack FBI agents somewhere.
The Washington Post has used the term all of five times in its history, and only in opinion pieces or attributed to others.
It’s worth rereading one of those opinion pieces, in which Juliette Kayyem, a national security expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, declared that there are “no lone wolves” anymore.
In 2019, right after a man radicalized by rhetoric about “the Hispanic invasion” of Texas murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, she wrote:
Public speech that may incite violence, even without that specific intent, has been given a name: stochastic terrorism, for a pattern that can’t be predicted precisely but can be analyzed statistically. It is the demonization of groups through mass media and other propaganda that can result in a violent act because listeners interpret it as promoting targeted violence — terrorism. And the language is vague enough that it leaves room for plausible deniability and outraged, how-could-you-say-that attacks on critics of the rhetoric.
The good news, such as it is, is that editors at both the New York Times and the Washington Post have finally and publicly acknowledged that threats of political violence have become commonplace among Republicans — and that such threats do not come from “both sides.”
There were two terrific New York Times stories about it last year: “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream, ” by Lisa Lerer and Astead W. Herndon; and “Its Own Domestic Army’: How the G.O.P. Allied Itself With Militants,” by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mike McIntire.
More recently, Alan Feuer, who “covers extremism and political violence” for the Times, wrote on Tuesday that the response to the search of Mar-a-Lago “went far beyond the usual ire and indignation,” as “Pro-Trump influencers, figures in the media and even some Republican candidates for office employed the language of violence to rally opposition.”
And the Washington Post published a strong story by Hannah Allam earlier this week describing how “right-wing agitators with millions of followers have peddled the idea that a moment was coming soon when violence would become necessary — a patriotic duty — to save the republic.”
With the FBI search Monday of Donald Trump’s compound in Florida, that moment is now, according to enraged commentators’ all-caps, exclamation-pointed screeds urging supporters of the former president to take up arms. Within hours of the search at Mar-a-Lago, a chorus of Republican lawmakers, conservative talk-show hosts, anti-government provocateurs and pro-Trump conspiracy theorists began issuing explicit or thinly veiled calls for violence.
News articles about the attack in Cincinnati strongly imply a connection between the rhetoric and the act.
Writing in the Post, Drew Harwell and Meryl Kornfield noted that the shooter’s account on Truth Social –Trump’s social network – was full of posts echoing “Trump’s lies about election fraud and, in the hours after FBI agents searched Trump’s Florida home, calling for all-out war. ‘Be ready to kill the enemy,’ Shiffer had posted on Tuesday. ‘Kill [the FBI] on sight.'”
The Cincinnati shooting offers a glimpse at the real-world dangers of constant attacks from Trump and allied Republicans against federal officials in the days since FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach estate and the center of his post-presidential operations.
It also showcased how such violent anger could be encouraged in plain sight in loosely moderated online refuges like Truth Social, where Trump supporters frequently tear down perceived enemies and call for civil war.
That gets close to putting the blame where it belongs. But not close enough.
The rhetoric about violence is not limited to things Trump, of course. Lindsay Beyerstein wrote an important piece for AlterNet in April about how Republican allegations that political opponents are pedophiles “is a tacit incitement to violence.” She noted: “If a campaign is waged from huge platforms over a long time, as we’re seeing now, it crosses the line into stochastic terrorism.”
Alejandra Caraballo, who teachers cyberlaw at Harvard, tweeted in May in response to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene endorsing “war” against “groomer teachers.”
“This is going to get people killed. Stochastic terrorism in action,” Caraballo wrote.
The virulent, racist Republican campaign to demonize immigrants has already had tragic consequences, but Fox in particular continues to stoke anti-immigrant hysteria and terrify white people with lies about “replacement theory” — with very little pushback from the mainstream media.
And all these threats continue. For a lot of people, they are not remotely abstract.
As Martha Pskowski of the El Paso Times reported last week:
Politicians from Brackettville to Austin to Amarillo have embraced the language of a border invasion, language that El Paso leaders fear could inspire another attack on the majority Latino community. They say El Paso — where 80% of residents are Hispanic — cannot heal from the events of August 3, 2019, if elected officials are promoting the same hateful ideas the shooter believed.
It’s just a matter of time before it happens again. The key, going forward at least, is to identify, call out, and condemn stochastic terrorism by name, and explain the likely consequences, in real time — not just when the inevitable violence takes place.