The United States has seen an increase in violence in recent years and a specific path has emerged. It begins with poisonous rhetoric that incites individuals and groups to engage in violent behavior. It’s called stochastic terrorism, and it’s a big problem online.
The danger of this violence is extreme as it is inspired by politicians and media personalities who are not held accountable.
Stochastic terrorism is based on a psychological phenomenon in which someone is inspired to act violently on behalf of something they perceive as wrong from messages they receive that are designed to inspire such action.
In other words, it refers to terrorism that is statistically predictable but unpredictable on an individual basis.
An example of stochastic terrorism can be found in the attack on a Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in Cincinnati a few days ago, inspired by anti-FBI rhetoric.
In the immediate aftermath of the FBI’s search of Palm Beach, Florida’s Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s home last week, members of the right – including politicians – began to attack the federal law enforcement agency.
Right-wing media figures sparked outrage over the lawful search and a sitting congressman urged the destruction of the FBI.
“The FBI raid on Trump’s house tells us one thing,” Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted. “Failure is not an option. We must destroy the FBI. We must save America. I support Donald J. Trump.”
In Cincinnati, a man who witnessed the January 6, 2021, uprising found inspiration in all the rhetoric he had consumed, so he targeted the FBI field office with a nail gun and an AR-15 Thursday. Following the incident, an hour-long standoff ended with the man dead.
In an article that is no longer available online, The daily beast reports, Ricky Shiffer, the man who attacked the field office in revenge for the search of Trump’s home, wrote at one point that he had prepared for “war on communists who chemically nuuter prebust [sic] children and call it gender transition. Conserve ammo.”
Throughout the summer, racist and misogynistic far-right groups, such as the Proud Boys and the Patriot Front, bullied LGBTQ+ events across the country.
The events of this summer followed a pattern which would not be predicted with precision but which can be analyzed by statistical analysis, says Juliette Kayyem the lawyer. “It’s stochastic terrorism,” she says.
As a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Kayyem is a world leader in crisis management and homeland security. She served as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Advisor to Deval Patrick when he was Governor of Massachusetts. She is one of the most renowned experts on stochastic terrorism.
Juliette Kayyem is a Harvard professor, CNN national security analyst, former DHS deputy secretary, author, and consultant.
“It’s like saying that ISIS is not planning a specific attack but creating an environment in which violence becomes a weapon of the political party,” Kayyem said.
“I saw in Trump the mastery of something that I knew in my field, which is stochastic terrorism,” she adds.
Listeners interpret the demonization of groups promoted by social media and right-wing propaganda as promoting targeted violence – terrorism – which can lead to overt action. But, as Kayyem says, these acts are often motivated by vague language that allows the agitator to deny responsibility.
There’s a direct link between accounts like Chaya Raichik’s LibsofTikTok and angry and potentially violent men showing up at drag queen story times and Pride events, Kayyem says.
In June, a group of men interrupted a drag queen story hour at a San Francisco Bay Area library after Libs of TikTok highlighted the event to its more than one million followers. The men, who police say are part of the far-right Proud Boys, shouted homophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs.
Earlier that month, a North Carolina drag queen story hour had to be canceled after organizers received threats of violence and considered dangerous to continue the event.
In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a potentially violent incident was foiled when an eagle-eyed citizen spotted a large group of men wearing khakis and blue shirts, with baseball caps and face coverings with riot shields and other gear, loading a U-Haul truck heading to an LGBTQ+ pride celebration and called out the authorities.
During the arraignment, police arrested 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front on riot-related charges.
In the incident that day, authorities credited the citizen’s quick reaction with preventing significant violence.
Identifying stochastic terrorism as the result of certain forms of rhetoric is crucial for accountability, says Kayyem.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors and tracks extremist groups like Patriot Front, TikTok libs went viral on Pride in the Park event in the small Idaho town ahead of time, leading to several right-wing radical groups targeting her, including the Patriot Front.
In June, Michael Hayden of the SPLC said the lawyer that he had “seen more images of very talented drag queens dancing [this summer] coming from the right swamp” than at any other time in his life.
He specializes in investigating hate groups and extremist groups for the SPLC.
He warned that ill-intentioned politicians could find themselves inspiring acts of terrorism.
“Marjorie Taylor Greene should know the risk of [her online rhetoric], Hayden said. “The question is, does she want to push an act of terror? I can’t say that.”
He continued: “But what I can say is that far-right actors are fussing in such a way that they should know the danger is [present].”
Given developments in the United States over the past week, Hayden’s warning was prescient.
Conservatives who use a specific tone and type of rhetoric online and in the media are aware of the consequences, according to Kayyem.
“I think they know the damage they cause,” she said. “It’s a political calculation that the damage is worth the win, and I think that’s horrific.”
She says fighting the conscious decision of conservatives to radicalize their supporters for political gain is about bringing it to light.
“It’s about identifying it, acknowledging it and pushing back,” she says. “The data shows me, as it always has, that they are on the losing side.”