In a recent discussion thread, Sadie Baker called attention to a very important DKos diary with a powerful new meme, "Stochastic Terrorism". The diarist has been using the term for some time now, and many others have described this process as well. But the time has never been ripe before for this particular picture-perfect formulation to gel. Now, however, the time is ripe--it cuts through so much BS all at once (particularly the way that individualist assumptions and framing cloud people's understanding), and puts the facts together most succinctly:
Stochastic Terrorism: Triggering the shooters.
Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 05:37:39 PM PST
Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.
This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.
This is also the term for what Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and others do. And this is what led directly and predictably to a number of cases of ideologically-motivated murder similar to the Tucson shootings.
Update: the mechanism spelled out.
(This update is to resolve some ambiguity.)
The person who actually plants the bomb or assassinates the public official is not the stochastic terrorist, they are the "missile" set in motion by the stochastic terrorist. The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media as their means of setting those "missiles" in motion.
Here's the mechanism spelled out concisely:
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.
Further, the stochastic terrorist may be acting either negligently or deliberately, or may be in complete denial of their impact, just like a drunk driver who runs over a pedestrian without even realizing it.
Finally, there is no conspiracy here: merely the twisted acts of individuals who are promoting extremism, who get access to national media in which to do it, and the rest follows naturally just as an increase in violent storms follows from an increase in average global temperature.
I would actually disagree with this last paragraph. There's not a conspiracy in any sort of clock-and-dagger sense. But there's definitely a long-term strategic plan. There's a hegemonic struggle. And it's not just "individuals". There are entire media organizations based around pushing these sorts of provocations on a regular basis. The provocations to violence are only one part of a wider range of provocations, all of them couched within a framework of conservative victimology.
But that's an issue which is considerably more complicated to deal with and explain. What can be said is that the stochastic terrorism model doesn't require any sort of conspiracy--no activist cells, no on-the-ground organizations for the FBI to track down and infiltrate, etc. So we can just set that whole issue aside for the purposes of discussing stochastic terrorism in and of itself.
There are three specific further elaborations from the diary that I'd like to excerpt & brief comment on:
The lone wolves.
The term "lone wolf" is used in law enforcement and intel to refer to an individual who is emotionally unstable, who lacks obvious ties to known criminal gangs or terrorist groups, and who pops up seemingly out of nowhere to commit a violent or terrorist act.
The three-letter agencies can keep an eye on organized groups, and do a damn good job at stopping violent actors associated with those groups. At least three intended car bombings were stopped last year by the FBI intercepting the bombers and substituting fake explosives in time to save hundreds of lives and arrest the would-be bombers.
Lone wolves don't have obvious connections through which they can be discovered....They are law enforcement's and intel's worst nightmare, and on Saturday one of them became America's nightmare.
Once upon a time, these guys were a true anomaly. But when you get so many that you're profiling them, things have obviously changed.
And one thing that changes things is the deliberate cultivation of the lone wolf populistion:
Stirring the pot.
At any given time there are hundreds of thousands of Americans with combinations of personality characteristics (such as emotional instability, a paranoid ideology, and a propensity for violence) that put them at risk of going off the deep end and becoming lone wolves. All it takes is the right push, the right nudge at the right time, to dislodge a few of them and send them on their way to fifteen minutes of fame surrounded by dead bodies.
There's nothing mysterious about this process. It is not much different to other instances where a person is almost ready to make a decision, and the right combination of inputs makes them act.... Anyone who is familiar with marketing and advertising knows how this works, and advertisers often target their messages to people who are "ready to buy" and just need a little persuading....
So let's take Beck, Hannity, and O'Reilly. There is no question that their emotional rhetoric appeals to people who are emotionally unstable. And, since their audiences are tracked and analyzed in detail, there is no question that they know it.
When they go on TV and shout and sputter, rant and rave, and weep and wail, they are not expecting to persuade liberals or even undecideds to change their votes. They are "playing to their base," that they know includes people who are emotionally unstable. In short they are "stirring the pot."
This is not to say that stirring the pot to produce specific acts of violence is their main concern. But getting people generally incensed pretty much is. And the very logic of their arguments is not self-limiting. Rather, that logic tends toward armed aggression. Virtually the only ready counter-argument at their disposal is, "Don't go off half-cocked and do something the liberals can use against us." Aside from that, they've got virtually no argument in their quiver that's ready-made to lead in any direction but toward precipitating violence. Which brings us to...
Pop go the lone wolves.
Some lone wolves have no provable connection to the hate-talkers and pot-stirrers, other than memes in common. One example of this type is James Wenneker von Brunn who shot and killed security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Another is Andrew Joseph Stack III, who flew a Piper Dakota into the Austin Texas field office of the Internal Revenue Service, killing IRS manager Vernon Hunter and himself, and injuring thirteen others. At this point it appears as if Jared Loughner is one of these: all-over-the-map crazy, with an incoherent ideology that is mostly rightwing but difficult to trace to specific sources.
(UPDATE: to be very clear about this: at this point I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that Loughner falls under the definition of stochastic terrorism, because there is nothing yet to link him to being a fan of one of the mass media hate-talkers. However there are enough other cases out there to make this issue topical and relevant right now.)
This is a very significant point. Limbaugh, Savage, Beck, O'Reilly, they all have histories with specific acts of violence connected with them. This has been going on long enough that the specific mechanism of stochastic terrorism can clearly be seen in these and other specific cases. But just as a boiling pot of water starts with specific points where boiling starts, there comes a point in time where the specific spreads out to the general: boiling breaks out everywhere.
That is what appears to have happened with Loughner. It's not a sign that he's not part of this pattern. Not at all. He's a sign of the next stage of this pattern passing from specific stochastic terrorist incitors to generalized stochastic terrorist incitement, where the entire caucophony of rightwing media incitement toward violence comes to function as a synergistic whole significantly above and/or beyond the level of impact of any individual stochastic terrorist.