Stochastic Terrorism?

Note: article originally posted in 2011 by the source noted below. It is reposted today due to the subject’s resurgence after the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs, CO and recent allusion to the subject regarding GOP candidates, such as Carly Fiorino, as stirring a hypothetical pot  of domestic terror (and, as some conspiracists would say, knowingly). If this conspiracy theory gets popular, it will be perhaps the most meta media-related conspiracy theory to date.

By Larry Wohlgemuth  (Relativity Online)

Everybody was certain it would happen, and in the wake of the shooting in Tucson last week only the most militant teabagger was able to deny that incendiary rhetoric played a role. We knew this talk of crosshairs, Second Amendment remedies and lock and load eventually would have repercussions, and it did.

Only the most obtuse can deny that, if you talk long enough about picking up a gun and shooting people, marginal personalities and the mentally ill will respond to that suggestion. Feebleminded and disturbed people DO exist, and to believe these words wouldn’t affect them seemed inauthentic at best and criminal at worst.

Now that the unthinkable has happened, people on the left want to shove it down the throats of wingers that are denying culpability. Suddenly, like Manna from heaven, a radical new “meme” was gifted to people intended to buttress their arguments that incendiary rhetoric does indeed result in violent actions.

It begs the question, what is stochastic terrorism, and how does it apply to the shooting in Tucson.

This diary on Daily Kos by a member who calls himself G2geek was posted Monday, January 10, two days after the tragedy in Tucson. It describes in detail the mechanisms whereby “stochastic terrorism” works, and who’s vulnerable to it. Here’s the diarist’s own words in explaining stochastic terrorism:

“Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”

So the diarist claims that stochastic terrorism in fact exists, and is being used systematically with predictable results. It’s a strong condemnation of the right, one that fits hand in glove with the events of January 8, and the left was all over it. This radical new theory was the talk of progressive websites across the country, but should it have been?

Whenever something is introduced into the discussion that perfectly fits the needs of one side or the other, I’m always cautious. The first indication there might be problems with the diarist’s claims was the lack of citations or links to any peer-reviewed studies on the subject. What he did have was links to anecdotal evidence that particular cases of violence had been precipitated by the rhetoric of the right. This made me nervous, so it was time to do some more digging.

This is the definition of stochastic:

1. Random; specifically involving a random variable; a stochastic process
2. Involving chance or probability; probabilistic; a stochastic model of radiation-induced mutation

Next I Googled stochastic terrorism using quotes, and began the laborious grunt work of sifting through the results to locate any scientific studies on the subject. Most of the results on the first 6 to 8 pages were progressive websites spreading the word about this new discovery, and linking back to the original article at Daily Kos. I went through 15 pages of results, and I did find a couple of hits that referred specifically to “stochastic terrorism” as a phenomenon, but they didn’t buttress the diarist’s claims.

The first was a report done by Samrat Chatterjee, Graduate Research Assistant, and Mark D. Abkowitz, PhD, Professor at Vanderbilt University, titled A Methodology for Modeling Regional Terrorism Risk. The second was a report done by Dr. Gordon Woo, Risk Management Solutions, LTD, titled Quantitative Terrorism Risk Assessment. Neither of these studies came close documenting the phenomenon the diarist had outlined.

One appear to be concerned with plotting random terrorist attacks for the purpose of predicting potential monetary losses for insurance purposes. It had nothing to do with lone wolves, incendiary rhetoric or anything else in the diary. The other had a single reference regarding how an act of terrorism was multiplied by the reach of the media, but not that the media had any causal effect for terrorist acts. Fifteen pages of search results on Google revealed nothing on stochastic terrorism per the diarist’s claims.

It’s not a problem if someone’s forwarding their own hypotheses as a potential explanation, however there should be a disclaimer. The diarist presented it not as his own creation, rather as a fact having some level of acceptance in the scientific community. Unless the results are so obscure that they are buried past page 15 of the Google search results, there’s nothing to support his diary. Apparently written by a relatively intelligent and lucid individual, he should understand the need to document his claims. Absent any supporting or corroborating documentation, I am forced to put this into the receptacle labeled bullshit.

The question is, why would he do it? What possible motivation would someone have to concoct or fabricate out of thin air 2700 words not supported by any studies, and present them as scientific fact? I can think of a couple of reasons.

The most generous is that he’s well-meaning, but simply took several anecdotal incidents and wove them together in support of what he desperately wanted to be true. The most condemning would be that it was a blatant attempt to make all those on the left who fail to practice due diligence look like idiots. The truth probably falls somewhere in between those two extremes.

Hopefully this article prompts him to provide any existing academic studies and research to support his argument. Should he do that I’d gladly retract everything I’ve said and issue a profound apology for my cynicism. The problem is, to invest so much effort without citing the original study leads one to believe that such documentation doesn’t exist. I don’t imagine I’ll be issuing any retractions or apologies.

We have a problem in this country, and it’s that the intellectual level of the discussion has been lowered to a point where people no longer consider their words. We stand breathlessly waiting for someone to hand us yet another club which we can use to bash our opponents, never considering its truthfulness. Unfortunately the left can now be labeled as knee-jerk reactionaries in the same way that the right can be labeled mean-spirited and hateful. No longer does anyone occupy the moral high ground, rather we’re all in the manure pile throwing feces at each other, not smart enough to realize that’s exactly what our corporate masters want.

It’s the politics of distraction to keep the idiots at the bottom arguing about things that may matter, but are not the root of the problem. Stochastic terrorism? It’s all made up and inserted into the narrative just like another ton of feces being dropped on the manure pile, and people aren’t smart enough to open their eyes and realize that they’re being covered with shit.

We’ve been trained like so many fleas, and we act predictably just like the diary said. Will we ever learn, or will we continue to rip each other to shreds while corporations and the wealthy systematically separate us from all we own? I don’t know about you all, but I’m getting out of the manure pile because it’s getting pretty stinky here.


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