Stochastic Terrorism

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by Neil Godfrey

An interesting take by Valerie Tarico:  Christianist Republicans Systematically Incited Colorado Clinic Assault . . . . Citing Stochastic Terrorism Valerie writes:

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. In short, remote-control murder by lone wolf.”

And explains:

The formula is perversely brilliant:

  1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
  2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
  3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
  4. When violence erupts, the public figure who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Stochastic terrorism is not a fringe concept. It is a known terrorist modality that has been described at length by analysts. It produces terrorism patterns that are known to any member of Congress or any presidential candidate who has ever thought deeply about national or domestic security issues . . .  

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33 thoughts on “Stochastic Terrorism”

    1. What a morally superior observation!

      I do wish you had the capacity to say something intelligently analytical, however. I thought it would be an excellent springboard for a review of the question of cognitive versus beharvioral extremists. Even compare those thoughts connected with the context of Islamic terrorists. But that would be unreasonably expecting you to actually read and think about what the post and its linked sources actually said and you have told us more than once now that you find it such a chore to read alternative viewpoints.)

  1. did you know that joe wallacks favorite atheist scholar richard carrier said this on his blog


    Meanwhile, if you think causation works the way you propose, then it actually goes back to Israel: Hamas is only supported in Gaza because Israel blockades Gaza, preventing all trade and thus destroying the Gaza economy and leaving basic supplies in short demand, and some essential infrastructure supplies completely forbidden. For example, Gaza can’t rebuild bombed schools without concrete, but Israel has blockaded all attempts to deliver building supplies, on the argument that they will be used for evil purposes.

    Imagine if Libya did that to the U.S.: cut off all our trade routes for years on the argument that we only use what we buy to attack them, resulting in 50% unemployment and massive shortages of food and medicine and basic infrastructure supplies, even preventing us from fishing; you might be firing rockets with Hamas.

    Richard Carrier

    i am sure that terrorist supporters like wallack would join hamas too.

    1. The original Hamas Charter is a nut that most aware Israelis have always found difficult to swallow, to mix a metaphor. but like most events in the history of political provocations and cultural interactions, faults rarely if ever are to be found on only one side, and “stereotypes” can become self-fulfilling “prophecies”. The real tasks are (1) to save lives and (2) to break continual cycles of mutual revenge. In the age of WMD availability, the growing Zionism v Islamism conflict is unlikely to claim victims only the region of the Middle East.

  2. Part of the cause of domestic antiabortion terrorism, has been conservative Catholics calling the foetus a baby; calling abortion therefore “baby killing” and “murder”. This inflammatory non-legal hate speech, lead directly or stochasticly to the anti-abortionist terrorism we see today.

    1. Re abortion: philosophers are currently debating whether (some) animals have “rights” not because they can (all) reason (let alone vote), but because they can (all) suffer. Whether the God who designed a living universe of pain and predation has any presumed role to say when a foetus is “ensouled”, and its (ex)termination is ipso facto a breach of his commandment against murder, is a question for some people. What concerns me as an atheist is that viable “innocent” and “helpless” and potentially adult humans should not be destroyed by methods that cause them suffering, however brief, either before, during or shortly after birth, without some superior justification.

  3. “An interesting take” indeed, but a bit too simplistic for me. The concept raises more questions than it answers. For instance:

    – why does one person become a violent ‘lone wolf’, and a similar person just goes to the pub to have a beer with his pals? Compare this with the 3 brothers from Brussels: 2 brothers take active part in the Paris killings, and the third brother distances himself explicitly from his brother’s actions.

    – our mass media stream (negative) opinions, condemnations of people to us around the clock. Why are some of these ‘airwaves’ interpreted as demonizing or dehumanising, while others are ‘just’ opinions?

    – the concept implies some kind of ‘conspiracy theory’, in which mass media conspire with evil public figures to broadcast subliminal messages. As usual, conspiracy theories are a very unlikely explanation of observations.

    1. The first question is answered in the definition. It is individually unpredictable. What is statistically predictable is that someone will act on it — not any person specifically. Pretty much everything that is statistically predictable works this way. Individual cases cannot be predicted but the aggregate can. For example: I can say that the average life expectancy of a domesticated cat is 15 years, but I cannot predict how old your cat will be when it dies.

      As to your second question, the answer is more complicated. Right-wing media is much more consolidated in the United States. Fox News’ average total day viewers from the first quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2015 is more than that of CNN — which has generally been assumed to be neutral — and MSNBC combined (source: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2015/03/31/fox-news-channel-first-quarter-ratings-up-double-digits-in-primetime-adults-25-54-from-first-quarter-2014/382501/). According to Pew polls, liberals tend to rely on multiple sources for their news, while conservatives tend to rely strictly on Fox News (source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/21/5-key-takeaways-on-politics-media-and-polarization/). As such, a conservative message, such as “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts” or “these people are murderers”, is easier to spread among the population, thus increasing the likelihood that someone will act upon it. Sure, either a conservative or liberal person could act on it, but which of those two groups is more likely to own firearms, more likely to be anti-abortion, and more likely to support the death penalty?

      And to answer your third question, none of this is subliminal or even terribly complicated. For about one in six people, womens’ rights of choice are a threshold issue (source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/157886/abortion-threshold-issue-one-six-voters.aspx). Among those, the numbers skew slightly more towards anti-abortion voters. That’s about 9% of all voters that will support a candidate for no other reason then they are anti-abortion. As such, these voters can be appealed to simply on the basis of how strongly one opposes abortion. The more vitriolic, the more strongly one can oppose it, the more popular one is with 9% of all voters. That’s a lot of people. So, what I am saying is that the stochastic terrorist statements may not be intended to inspire shooters, it is simply likely to, and those using it know that it is likely to. It is not a conspiracy but an appeal to a large voting pool. Hanlon’s razor is applicable here: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The terrorism is really just a side-effect. And that’s kind of even more terrifying.

  4. Propaganda – or as it is called in the media sphere, advertising – works. But statistically. Propaganda, broadcast speech, does not, just by itself alone, make you buy something; like a new car, or a given political position. However of course, those who use these methods know that, in enough cases to make it worthwhile, it furnishes the final straw. They know that the broadcast message will push those already on the edge, into buying what you are selling. And even carrying it a predictable step further.

    In the present case, by the way, it is not religion alone that creates terrorism. But once our right-wing Colorado/Canadian bishops like Charles Chaput started hinting that abortion kills babies, it is only a matter of time before figures on the violent, Old-Testament-influenced fringes of the religion, decide to act as allegedly moral executioners.

    It’s quite predictable, statistically. In the present case, Colorado in particular had been very, very heavily propagandized by Chaput, and Focus on the Family. For twenty years, a priest had been holding weekly mass in front of the facility.

    Though the religious Right allegedly eschews violence, it was statistically predictable that once the issue was defined as a matter of life and death, the gun-loving Right, would take it all to the next level.

    1. I have recently been reading a swathe of research into Islamic terrorism and I would be interested to know a little about the background of Christian-Right terrorists and whether or not the same sorts of factors that lead do/would predict terrorist acts are at work with these as well. I would not be surprised.

      Last night I heard for the first time of a group called Sovereign Citizens. Another extremist group: though this one seems to be more designed for an older age bracket.

      1. I think domestic brainwashing/indoctrination in religious extremism and terrorism is a fairly well known but still relatively under-researched or under-publicized topic, compared to the obsession with Muslim extremism only.

        So there’s room here for a new, popular book, among other things. Which would cover things from the crusades and burnings for heresy. To the witch burnings at Salem. To the KKK cross burnings and lynchings. To last week’s events.

        Often the handoff from nonviolent priests to and violent crusaders by the way, is pretty smooth. Charles Chaput, now Rick Santorum’s buddy in Philly, is a martial artist.

        1. I’d say that domestic terrorism is quite similar to Muslim extremism. In that the active shooters and bombers at least, the everyday soldiers and lieutenants, are economically poor or otherwise marginalized persons. Though they are partly inspired by the suppressed but real, violent side of some religious leaders.

          1. The “conservative” or actually right wing Catholic theologian George Weigel, of First Things and NBC, by his own statements, worked for the State Department/ CIA. Maybe in South America; in the Reagan-era attempt to organize Catholics militarily against leftists and liberation theology priests and bishops. Both sides used murderous methods that could be described as terroristic.

          2. It’s a vast topic and I would like to post much more on it in future, but one common theme emerging from my reading of Islamic State is that most who travel to join it are young and all the things that so often go with youth: idealism, looking for a life rich in meaning, adventure, and the easy opportunity for the men to get laid, and a religious belief that these events are signs of end-times. Oh yes, one such person even snatched up a copy of Islam for Dummies to read on the way.

            There is a general ignorance of history, the world, and general disillusion with what life in the West has to offer.

    2. Regarding “the violent, Old-Testament-influenced fringes of the religion”. Already very early on, Christians argued that the Old Testament had a violent, revengeful character, while the new testament exuded love and peace.
      Now there are certainly violent passages in the OT, of a kind that we would find unacceptable in modern times. On the other hand, ‘peace’ and good relationships between people is a theme that permeates the Old Testament form start to finish. So is it correct to consider the OT as violent?
      Compare the OT with the New Testament. Certainly, the most striking ‘ love’ passage is where Jesus proclaims ” ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Then Jesus continues that all the Law and the Prophets hang on this commandment (+ love your God) [Matthew 22:36 – 40]
      But…..Jesus is doing nothing but quoting the old testament here! It is a literal quote from Leviticus 19:18. So how ‘loving is the NT versus the OT?
      I would argue that Revelation (NT) competes with Leviticus (OT) for having most violence in it.

      1. Revelation is violent. But the generally more non-judgemental “grace” of the NT is traditionally thought to contrast with the strict death sentences, wars, and genocides, of the OT and it’s “law.” For those who don’t obey of course. The OT death sentence for collecting firewood or cooking on a Sabbath would be one example.

        Granted, violent people find inspirational material in both testaments.

        1. I would stretch your last remark further: ‘people find what they seek in both testaments’.

          For what does it say about ‘Grace vs Law’ when Jesus says: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.” [Matthew 5:17-18].

          Or “But it is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for one dot of the Law to become void.” [Luke 16:17].

          And what about the death sentence in the NT: “‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.” [Matthew 15:4]?

          Or Jesus’ non-violent preaching: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”[Luke 19:27]?

          Or “he [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every ruler and every authority and power.” [1 Corinthians 15:24]

          Or “He [Jesus] has no compassion upon His enemies, whom He will conquer completely and consign to a fiery lake of burning sulfur” [Revelation 19:20]

          So I don’t think this contrast between OT and NT holds much water. It is – in my view – a relic of the Marcionite tradition. And although Marcion was declared a heretic long ago, this doesn’t stop people to ‘borrow’ his ideas when they want to evaluate the OT vs the NT.

          1. Some here though are perhaps rightly seeing pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek elements, spiritual platonism or Marcionist elements, as showing up originally. Even in the earliest gospel.

            Seems to me the New Testament has both violent things, but also a nonviolent clerical/priestly passivity. Take your pick. Typically our clerics chose the nonviolent side. But they are ready to hand the ball to the violent soldiers, when preachers want them to do the dirty work.

          2. Luke 19.27 appears in the most “universalist-humanitarian-pacifist” Synoptic gospel, and presumably refers to the eventual Divine Judgement (cf. Matthew 25.31f).

      2. Holy texts are used and interpreted in different ways according to the needs and interests of the reader. Different eras of history have witnessed different interpretations and uses of the Bible for this reason. No-one reads a text in isolation (apart maybe from a mentally ill person) but always in the context of what they are fed by the social group and messages that give them meaning and a feeling of status.

        1. True, texts are interpreted in different ways, and how and why they are so interpreted is of paramount importance. But can it be denied that the Qur’an and the Gospels differ in actual content in terms of “pacifism” v “militarism” in “this” world, as regards both the number and theme of relevant verses? “Crucifying infidels” and “turning the other cheek” are different sentiments from different voices in different circumstances, but this contrast can hardly be excluded from considerations of this-world “religious” violence focused especially on modern Arab communities.

          However, Matthew 25.31-46 is not a – nevertheless practically impossible – instruction to engage in universal altruism, though many peace-loving and compassionate Christians have so understood it. It is a declaration of “next-world” damnation of nations that persecute or neglect the followers of Jesus.

          1. But can it be denied that the Qur’an and the Gospels differ in actual content in terms of “pacifism” v “militarism” in “this” world, as regards both the number and theme of relevant verses?

            This is a question for a comparative literature class and is irrelevant for understanding the nature of Islam today. There is really no such thing as Islam any more than there is anything real that we call Christianity. There are Christians and denominations etc, each different, and none is defined or understood by an outsider doing a literary analysis of the Bible.

            1. The debates and fatwas of the influential teachers of modern Islamic communities inside the Middle East are not only very real but also have more political impact than mere literature classes. I do not wish to prolong any apparent hair-splitting on your website, but will add relevant annotation to the long promised book-list that I hope to send privately after “Christmas”.

              I do not read Arabic, but have been familiar with NT analysis, and different churches, for very many years. Incidentally, my exegesis of Matthew 25.31f is supported not only, as might be expected, by Enoch Powell’s “Evolution of the Gospel” (2011), but also by e.g. the Anglican “New Commentary on Holy Scripture” (1928) and the IVP “New Bible Commentary” (1970).

              1. Agreed that we need to focus on who’s who and who’s saying what and that it is meaningless to speak of what Islam means by our outsider reading of one of their scriptures. We can even do better than “modern Islamic communities inside the Middle East” and identify which ones are backed by Saudi Arabia’s finances (generally the Wahhabist strain) and those that have for centuries flatly deplored those sentiments and interpretations. And that’s before we even begin to look at, say, Australia, the USA, New Zealand, Germany . . . . .

              2. One might argue which strain is the real or prevalent theme in the Bible; the violent one or the pacifist one. But in the meantime, the Justice Department and the FBI are probably interested in knowing how much conservative and possibly violent factions in American religion in part inspired and even stochastic directed antiabortion terrorists like our recent Mr. Dear of Colorado, and the 2015 Planned Parenthood killings. Probably we could say that marginalized Canadian Americans like Ted Cruz and Charles Chaput over-energized their violent conservative base.

              3. Could we further show that former Colorado bishop Charles Chaput deliberately directed Mr. Dear in the Colorado Planned Parenthood terrorist murders? That would be an interesting project. In the meantime, there’s no doubt in my mind that culture warrior Chaput’s constant antiabortion harangues in First Things and elsewhere, stochastically caused the assault. With an anti abortion Catholic priest offering weekly mass for twenty years in front of the Planned Parenthood building, it was just a matter of time before some spark set this bomb off.

              4. For a martial artist and culture warrior like Chaput, making the transition from the peaceful side of religion to the violent one, would be simple. He could easily do it by a deniable “accident.”

      1. We are used to thinking of terrorists as individuals acting against the state, or other institutions. But often institutions, leaders like Hamas and some members of the conservative party, deliberately encourage some of them. To use them to enforce their values, violently. Some members of the Church, like Charles Chaput or his friends, use language that will inflame the violent antiabortionists. To start murdering people associated with abortion. The terrorist leadership hoping these murderous followers at last, will keep women out of the clinics.

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