Without stepping on Zandar’s post from yesterday, I do want to approach the overall topic from a different angle. While the emerging reports seem to indicate that the Kansas bomb carrier was not actually trying to blow up the clinic, the news rightly put everyone’s antenna up. Whether we are talking about shootings or other attacks at movie theaters, the attack on the Chattanooga recruiting center and military facility, the Charleston church shooting, or other actions that seem to fall in between what we would define as crimes against persons, hate crimes, and/or terrorism, there certainly seems to be a buzz in the air. Both here in the US and abroad. Back in 2011 the term stochastic terrorism started to make the rounds. There was even a blog devoted to it; albeit one that was a one post and done website. While I think the term stochastic terrorism has descriptive merit, what we have been watching develop and unfold is actually one step back from stochastic terrorism – we have been observing stochastic violence. We have so much noise to signal right now, and so many more platforms for transmission of messages that have the ability to enflame and incite, that it is easy for aggrieved parties, including those with mental health issues, to lock onto something and ride it as motivation for an attack. Basically, we cannot and will not be able to predict exactly who might or might not undertake an act of mass violence – shooting, bombing, knifing, running down a crowd of folks in one’s car, etc, but we can be sure that these types of action will happen. This also includes political forms of violence like terrorism.
Stochastic violence is an unfortunate reality of the interconnected, 24/7 media and social media world we live in and it presents a unique challenge to the concept and practice of freedom of speech. While this is certainly a constitutional/foundational law issue in the US and some other states, it is definitely a real, complicating factor in trying to get a handle on the problem. It raises questions as to what, if anything should be regulated and who, if anyone, bears responsibility beyond the specific actor or actors involved in any given attack. These questions actually helped to create an earlier iteration of this type of political violence and terrorism: leaderless resistance. Louis Beam, back in the early 1980s, coined the term leaderless resistance to cover the concept of how to put white supremacist and eliminationist ideals into practice without the need to create a highly organized movement. His bottom line was that if you heard or read the message and were inspired to act on it, then just go and do it. Do not contact him or other white supremacist leaders for permission or join an organized and trackable group, just go and do whatever it is you think you are called to do. The idea was to have cake and eat it too. By using the messaging to inspire action, but have the actors not formally/objectively tied to any movement or individual leader, then one got the behavior one wanted, but the plausible deniability and lack of legal liability when whatever was planned actually occurred. One of the best examples of this was Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was clearly a subjective member of a number of white supremacist groups – he clearly identified with them. However, he never joined any of them, which is what made it hard to track him as outside of personal contacts (Mike from Michigan and the Ozarks supremacist community he was in contact with), he was basically an incredibly angry and resentful cypher. McVeigh and his co-conspirators were classic examples of leaderless resistance.
The concern now, though, is being expressed as the self radicalization of individuals leading to lone wolf attacks. This is basically the path/route taken by McVeigh, as well as Reverend Paul Hill who went from being abortion clinic protestor to abortion clinic shooter, the recent worry is about self radicalizing Muslim youth exposed to the online presence and messages of the Islamic State. While this is, certainly, a concern, what we have actually been seeing in the US, parts of Europe, Israel, and elsewhere is a lot of individuals, with only a portion of them being Muslim, engaging in violence to redress their real or imagined grievances. The process, regardless of who is being exposed to it, however, is the same one I wrote about here last year: neutralization of norms (definitions favorable) for normative, legal behavior to redress problems allowing for the potential lone wolves to drift into deviant, violent, and sometimes terroristic acts to solve their problems. The policy and strategy implications to dealing with this problem are complex, specifically because of our dedication to the concept and practice of freedom of speech. The policy outcome should be the reduction of lone wolf attacks, whether violent crimes, hate crimes, and/or terrorism, to as close to zero as possible regardless of the demographic of the perpetrator. However, that is going to be very difficult to achieve as the ways to achieve this end need to not do damage to the freedom of speech. As is so often the case, and in what seems to be a reverse of Beowulf, one of our greatest strengths is also one of our most exploitable weaknesses. I will leave you with Justice Brandeis’s wisdom on the matter: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”