Stochastic Terrorism, Donald Trump’s Terrorism by Proxy
Bill Berkowitz / BuzzFlash
(November 1, 2020) — Donald Trump is a “Stochastic Terrorist.” Wait, wait … what? What in heaven’s name is “stochastic terrorism?” It’s a term I was totally unfamiliar with until I tuned into “Rumble,” Michael Moore’s podcast, with his guest was Keith Olbermann — the former longtime host of MSNBC’s Countdown program.
Olbermann, who recently left another of his stints at ESPN to share his political commentaries on a YouTube show called “Worst Person In The World,” explained the concept: “There might be some argument about whether [Trump] is simply a ‘terrorist,’ but there is no doubt he literally fits the definition of ‘stochastic terrorism.’” It is “terrorism by proxy.”
Dictionary.com defines stochastic terrorism as “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” — those that support the use of guns — could do something to stop Hillary Clinton. A few months back, Trump called out to his supporters to “Liberate Michigan,” and several other states that were not opening up fast enough during the coronavirus pandemic.
While he didn’t specifically urge his supporters to do harm to Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, nevertheless, a few weeks ago, 14 members of an assortment of militia/white supremacist/white nationalist groups were arrested for planning the kidnapping and assassination of the governor. The Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Isaac Stanley-Becker recently reported that Trump’s attacks on political opponents are often followed by threats to their safety.
In a recent story headlined “How the War Came Home, Big Time: Perspectives From a Military Spouse,” Andrea Mazzarino, co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project wrote: “Never would it have been thinkable for a sitting president to overlook, or even implicitly endorse, plots to kidnap and possibly kill elected officials, but Trump has even gone so far as to respond to his supporters at a recent rally in Michigan chanting “Lock her up!” by saying ‘Lock them all up!’ (a play both on his Hillary Clinton chants in the last election and on Governor Whitmer’s pandemic lockdown orders).”
Does the messaging from Donald Trump qualify as stochastic terrorism?
Olbermann said that stochastic terrorism dates back “millennia.” “You can be a terrorist by proxy.” Trump is not using actual violence but using “the threat of [violence] to attain a political outcome.”
“Historically,” Moore pointed out, “some of the most disgusting terrorists never killed a single person. Osama bin Laden never killed anybody himself. Manson didn’t kill anybody.” Olbermann said that “I don’t believe there’s any record of Hitler personally killing anybody, and … millions of people died because of Hitler.”
“The first way to resolve this, is to say the word,” Olbermann said. “He’s criminally negligent in the deaths of at least 200,000 Americans, with more to come. You can describe him accurately as negligently or intentionally a mass murderer. He is a terrorist. He is a stochastic terrorist, and in the language of standard issue terrorists, he sits in the back and supervises while other people go out and plan to kidnap governors and all the rest of that.”
Dictionary.com traced the origin of the term to at least 2002. Its use spread in the 2010s, often credited to a 2011 blog post. “Terrorism experts, security analysts, and political observers have been increasingly using the term stochastic terrorism in the late 2010s, especially in terms of how rhetoric from political and religious leaders inspires random extremists, typically young men considered to be radicalized by ISIS or white supremacist groups.”
According to Dictionary.com, the idea behind stochastic terrorism:
1. “A leader or organization uses rhetoric in the mass media against a group of people.
2. This rhetoric, while hostile or hateful, doesn’t explicitly tell someone to carry out an act of violence against that group, but a person, feeling threatened, is motivated to do so as a result.
3. That individual act of political violence can’t be predicted as such, but that violence will happen is much more probable thanks to the rhetoric.
4. This rhetoric is thus called stochastic terrorism because of the way it incites random violence.”
After the August, 2019, El Paso shooting, which killed 22 people and wounded more than two dozen, Juliette Kayyem, who previously served in the Department of Homeland Security as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, wrote a column titled “There Are No Lone Wolves” for The Washington Post:
“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” (excerpts @ https://www.questia.com/newspaper/1P4-2269284987/there-are-no-lone-wolves).
In October 2019, realchangenews.org’s Joanne Zuhl interviewed Drexel University Law Professor David Cohen, an early identifier of stochastic terrorism. Cohen, the co-author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2015), pointed out that throughout his entire political career, Trump has said things that clearly encourage white nationalist movements.
Zuhl asked: “Is stochastic terrorism a crime? Cohen responded saying that “it’s not a crime. It’s a precursor to crime, and it’s becoming hard to pinpoint who is going to take action. I don’t think you can say it’s criminal. I think it’s something we need to call out, and make sure we talk about the way people’s violent rhetoric incites other people.”
Trump’s dog whistles, and now bullhorn exhortations, providing cover for racism and right-wing extremism, and barely disguised encouragement for armed militia attacks including plots to kidnap elected officials, need to be called out for what they are. Stochastic terrorism may be even more dangerous than overt calls for violence as it provides a thin veneer of deniability to the leader while civil society is being upended.
The day after the August, 2019 El Paso massacre, BuzzFlash editor described how Trump was responsible for inciting violence as a stochastic terrorist:
• It was followed by another BuzzFlash Editor’s commentary, again calling out Trump as an inciter of violence, “Message to the Mainstream Media: Stop Normalizing Trump’s Behavior. He Is a Racist, Liar and Instigator of Violence. Full Stop.”
• And one more pertinent commentary: “Mainstream Media Should Not Let Trump Off the Hook for His Incitement of White Christian Nationalist Violence and Massacres, But It Will.”
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