Three years ago, on Aug. 9, 2016, Rolling Stone magazine published an article by Drexel University Law Professor David Cohen on stochastic terrorism and the messaging coming from the Trump campaign.
At the time, stochastic terrorism was a relatively obscure academic term, but Cohen’s article propelled it into today’s lexicon. Recent events have prompted discussion on how it is operating in our country today.
It is most obvious in hindsight — after selected people are repeatedly demonized, after they are targeted for removal from society and after the righteous cause becomes manifest in violence by the now-ubiquitous lone wolf.
Writings from the man who opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, on Aug. 4, echoed repeated messages from Donald Trump. In a racist manifesto, the shooter railed against the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and against the media, using language used by Trump ad nauseam in his tweets and speeches. Twenty-two people died violently and dozens of others were seriously wounded by the inspiration of those words.
When Cohen wrote about stochastic terrorism three years ago, he was writing about Trump in the aftermath of suggesting “Second Amendment people” — people singularly identified for their support and use of guns — could do something to stop Hillary Clinton. Since then, the message from the White House is less tongue-in-cheek and more racist and violent, targeting African Americans, immigrants and women.
Cohen’s focus has long been countering violence against another group historically linked to terrorism: anti-abortion campaigns. Cohen co-authored “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism” (Oxford University Press, 2015). The book examines how abortion providers are individually targeted by anti-abortion extremists and how the law can better respond to this type of harassment. Cohen has also written for numerous publications.
In the wake of the deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, Street Roots (Portland, Oregon’s street newspaper) wanted to talk with Cohen about the resonance of stochastic terrorism and what, if anything, can be done about it.
What is stochastic terrorism?
The idea is that someone who is a leader or who has a voice in the media puts out messages that there’s a reasonable certainty someone will act on. You have no idea who that person is, but someone, somewhere, will act on those ideas.
So for instance, the example I use in the world of anti-abortion terrorism is Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly used his platform on Fox News to constantly talk about George Tiller being a murderer, being a killer; he must be stopped.
Now, Bill O’Reilly is not going out there telling everyone out there, go and kill George Tiller. He’s not saying, hey, you, Scott Roeder, go and kill George Tiller.
But it’s a reasonable possibility that someone out there would hear this message and take action, and that’s what Scott Roeder did. So there is no certainty that any one person will take action, but there is a reasonable possibility that someone out there will take action.
[Tiller was a physician at the Women’s Health Care Services clinic in Wichita, Kansas. After repeated slander by O’Reilly on Fox News – including saying Tiller operated a “death mill” and equating him with al-Qaeda, child molesters, Nazis, Hitler and Stalin – Roeder, an anti-abortion radical, shot and killed George Tiller in 2009 while Tiller was serving as an usher in his church.]
Is this done intentionally?
I don’t know if it’s done intentionally. It’s more likely done with a blind eye or a wink-wink to the risk. So I don’t know if Bill O’Reilly wanted George Tiller to be assassinated. I’m sure he’d say he didn’t. But I think he knew full well that there was a risk of his rhetoric causing this, and he did it anyway. And I think that with Donald Trump, it’s the same situation. I think terrible things about the president, but I don’t go so far as to think that he wanted things like this weekend to happen. But I think he turns a blind eye to the serious risk.
When did stochastic terrorism become a thing?
It’s safe to say that leaders of violent movements or extremist movements probably have understood this for a long time — that they know they can get away with saying things that will incite others and not do it directly, and that others will take action. I don’t think it’s new.
What are your thoughts on Trump’s comments?
It’s his whole career as a politician and as a media figure. He says things that are clearly White nationalist enthusiast, and [at a May rally], when someone talked about killing immigrants, he laughed. He talked about using Second Amendment rights against Hillary Clinton in 2016. He is inciting violence by talking about things in a way that he knows — or he should know — that someone among the people listening is going to do something about this.
Aside from Trump, are there other types of messaging going on that are contributing to these mass shootings?
I think half of the American politicians who don’t do anything to denounce it or just denounce it by saying “thoughts and prayers” and then move on to the next topic, I think they contribute to it. So that people know that there’s not going to be any change or consequences in a bigger way. I think also politicians who mirror his rhetoric, and Fox News that says similar things, in terms of talking about immigrants in a way that would lead someone to want to kill them, and talking about people of color in similar ways, and talking about women in ways that they should be treated poorly. There’s a lot of people out there — Trump certainly has the biggest platform — but there are others who also have platforms that they are using similarly.
The NRA comes to mind.
I feel like they’ve been quiet the past year or two, but I know that they’re still working as an advocacy group for gun manufacturers, and they still do what they do, and they still have politicians in their pocket. But I feel like, in the public presence, they’ve been quieter in the past couple of years.
Of the recent shootings, people were quick to blame video games and mental health issues. How does that play into the message?
I think it makes an easy scapegoat rather than their own ways of contributing to the situation. You can say it’s video games; that means it’s Hollywood and the media producers who contribute to it, and then parents’ decisions to let their kids play video games, so the politicians get to throw their hands up and say it’s an easy scapegoat. I don’t think the studies bear it out.
Is stochastic terrorism a crime?
No, 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.
Do you think that the actions talked about [a couple of weeks after the most recent mass shootings] — more gun regulation, red-flag laws — are a solution to these events?
We’re in a world where I would just love to see anything being done. Would it solve the problem? No. But I’d love to try to start to solve the problem by just passing something and make that the first of many things. But we’re in a world where nothing happens usually after these shootings, other than “thoughts and prayers” tweets, so it would be nice to try some of these things even if they’re baby steps, and then get further along the way.
I would love to go the way other countries have in terms of banning some of these weapons or all guns, but we’re certainly not getting there in this country yet. But I’d like this country to try something.
What about 8chan and these online platforms that foment these reactions to terrorist speech? [8chan was where the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto.] Do you think there are corrective measures that need to be taken there?
I don’t know if corrective measures need to be by law enforcement, but certainly entities that are hosting these hate-filled fora need to think about what they’re doing.
And maybe any entities that contribute to their financial viability need to reconsider what they’re doing and have pressure put on them — to the extent that there are messages of direct violence that need to be investigated by law enforcement to see whether that’s a threat for someone. I think there’s certainly a lot more that needs to be done with those fora.
Are there some dog-whistle terms we all should know? What do you listen for when you hear Trump and similar people speak?
I think when you accuse entire groups of people of serious crimes like rape and murder. When you compare them to animals.
When you use words like “shithole” to describe entire countries. These are sort of obvious things. It’s painting with such a broad stroke, in such a negative way.
So it doesn’t surprise you that when he says these things, violence follows?
No, not at all.
If you are someone who is in the mindset that you agree with the president and you think that he’s speaking the truth and someone tells you that an entire group is filled with murderers and rapists and you are predisposed to violence, or just taking measures in your own hands to solve problems, that’s basically saying we’ve got an entire group of people who are murdering and raping and invading this country, I’m going to do something about it.
These are serious words that the president is speaking to people, and I don’t agree with him, but we know that there are lots of people who do, so they’re doing something about this. I think it’s horrible and wrong, but when you’re feeding people who agree with you this rhetoric, it’s just a logical next step that they’re going to do something.
What can we do, if it’s not a crime?
That’s the big question. We need to somehow convince [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell to open votes in the Senate.
I think we have to fight like hell for 2020.
I never like to say we’re worse than it’s been before, because it’s been terrible before in lots of different ways. But it’s bad now, and the way our political system is set up ... it doesn’t look like Mitch McConnell is going to allow any kinds of votes on certain things. Then the solution is 2020.
We’ve got to kick Trump out and win the Senate back for the party that’s willing to do things.
I don’t have confidence the Democrats are going to do the right things, but I think they’ll try something. But we know that Republicans aren’t going to do anything.
Courtesy of Street Roots / INSP
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