Stochastic Terrorism

The rise of organized right wing terror and violence should be worrying to everyone. Nazis and the Klan marching in the streets, politicians and police officers trumpeting their white supremacist ties, and above all, the shooting, stabbing, bombing, and beating of minorities across the country. The vulnerable targets of these attacks should fear them for obvious reasons; the right-wing politicians who egg on the attackers should fear them because once you rile up a bunch of aggrieved and violent people, you better have a plan to actually fix what’s wrong with their lives, lest they turn on you next.

Despite the media’s limp attempts to draw equivalency between “antifa” counter-protesters and their fascist opponents, only one side has a body count. Anders Behring Breivik killed dozens of children in 2011; Dylann Roof killed 9 black parishioners in 2015. In 2017 alone, Adam Purinton killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, James Harris Jackson stabbed Timothy Caughman to death with a sword, Jeremy Joseph Christian killed Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche while they were attempting to defend two Muslim women from Christian’s Islamophobic harassment. Most recently, James Alex Fields, Jr., murdered Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally by ramming his car into a crowd in an attack reminiscent of ISIS’s European attacks.

Something is motivating white men to murder immigrants, women and people of color. The rise of violence on the right, especially the loose bundle of white supremacists, revanchist losers, and neo-fascists known as the “alt-right” has been well documented. Donald Trump’s demagogic tendencies on his way up, and the open admiration for fascists among his inner circle, has raised the spectre of a right-wing SA-style paramilitary that would grease the skids for American fascism. That’s not what we’ve seen, however. By and large the right-wing talks a big game, but when the rubber meets the road, they’re cowards. They flee their own rallies under police escort or pen themselves in in gazebos. It doesn’t help that they can only summon a scant few dozen or couple hundred at most, while left-wing counterprotests regularly number in the tens of thousands.

This makes sense. Despite the heavy focus on the white working class, and of course the ugly classism of coastal liberals, the fascist base of the alt-right comes from the comfortable suburban middle-class. These petit-bourgeoisie would always form the base of any fascist movement in America, hungry to defend their little slice of prosperity from usurping outsiders, yet eager to lick the boots of the truly wealthy and powerful. Fascism forms around a core of conformity and subservience, and fascists are always looking for a Strong Daddy to serve. The militias that show up to menace left-wing protesters are kitted out in “tactical” gear they bought online at exorbitant markups; they’re cosplayers in expensive costumes, not domestic-terrorists-in-waiting.

What right-wing killings all have in common is the perpetrators. They tend to be loners, losers, washups, the addicted, the ill, the antisocial, the crazy. This excellent story by GQ profiles Roof’s life before his attack on the church. He was a high-school dropout with a history of social withdrawal, substance abuse and mental health problems. Adam Purinton scraped by doing odd jobs, but his drinking had spiraled out of control following the death of his father. Jeremy Christian had a history of violent behavior and confrontations with law enforcement, who was in and out of jail due to his allergy to any kind of authority at all. James Alex Fields, Jr. was a loner who had failed out of boot camp and assaulted his mother when she tried to get him to cut down on video games. These men were, frankly, fuckups, and they were fuckups before they started drinking right-wing poison from internet sewers like Reddit, 4chan, and Stormfront.

james alex fields jr.

The threat the right-wing poses can be best understood in terms of “stochastic terrorism.” For something to be stochastic, it must be a random event whose likelihood can be statistically predicted, though any individual event cannot be. Stochastic terrorism refers to the use of mass media to incite acts of violence against one’s opponents, knowing that while you are likely to generate some events, you cannot predict who, when, or where. Rolling Stone has an excellent piece about it here. This kind of incitement breaks no laws, since you are not encouraging people to undertake a specific act of terrorism, but by normalizing violence and demonizing their enemies as inhuman or treasonous, speakers can motivate their most unhinged listeners to take action. That’s the key. Most Republicans will listen to the red meat of Alex Jones and Sean Hannity and nod along. They might even fantasize about shooting a liberal or driving a car into a crowd of protesters, though they wouldn’t act on it out of fear of consequence. Middle-class suburbanites have a lot to lose. Instead, the ones who act are the madmen, the losers, the ones at the bottom of the ladder with little investment in society and none of the normal community safeguards that stop people from flipping out when they have a bad day. Nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand will hear this bile and do nothing, but it only takes one.

What can be done about stochastic terrorism? In effect, it is scattering hundreds or thousands of seeds, knowing that only a vanishingly small percentage will take root. What we must do to protect ourselves from this violence is to make the soil infertile. Young white men are being radicalized at an astonishing rate by neo-fascist websites and networks, and good work is being done uprooting these networks and destroying these websites. But these men are vulnerable to radicalization because the material conditions of their lives are falling apart and the community safety nets that might once have caught them have been shredded. Mental health care, substance abuse programs, and direct outreach to these groups can turn young men lured into stochastic terrorism away from that path. Presenting them with an alternative reduces the chances that they channel their frustrations into murder. Racism and xenophobia are at the core of the alt-right’s resurgence, and we must combat those through education and exposure, ensuring that racist speakers and writers are denied a platform to spread their poison. At the very least, keeping tabs on them may help defuse some of these threats before they happen, like the man recently caught by the FBI attempting to blow up a bank.

De-radicalizing the young is a long, difficult job, but it’s essential if we are to curb violence in the future. A generation’s futures have been stolen from them, and they’re pissed as hell about it. We can set to work dismantling the predatory architecture that has done this, ensuring health care and economic security for the many, and acting to curb the spread of racism in communities through direct engagement and education. Or we can double down on the failed police state and live with the human cost of stochastic terrorism.