There's a fashionable new term in town, and it isn't helpful
‘Stochastic terrorism’ has become a fashionable term in recent months. I first came across it in May after a midwit terrorism scholar used the expression in relation to the racially-motivated rampage shooting in Buffalo, New York, an attack which killed ten people.
As far as I could decipher, “stochastic terrorism” is a specific form of incitement whereby the inciter — the “stochastic terrorist” — uses coded language to provoke others into committing acts of terrorism (i.e. violence against civilians for political purposes).
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The academic also claimed that the Buffalo massacre, along with several other recent far-Right attacks, was an example of stochastic terrorism, because it was “clearly motivated by the rhetoric of the Tucker Carlsons of the world”. This was a reference to Carlson’s theory that U.S. liberals “are trying to replace the current electorate with new, more obedient voters from the Third World”. The tweet thread went on: “With a wink and a nod, he dehumanises and demonises the big, scary ‘other’ and justifies hurting them”.
Somehow, this paper-thin idea has spread: on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused Fox News’ Carlson of being a stochastic terrorist. “I can tell you 110%,” she said in a radio interview, “one of the largest sources of death threats that I get is Tucker Carlson…Every time that dude puts my name in his mouth — the next day — I mean, this is like what stochastic terrorism is.”
Readers will by now have cottoned on to the idea that the stochastic terrorist is not your typical, run-of-the-mill terrorist. For a start, he doesn’t actually commit any acts of terrorism. He doesn’t explicitly call for acts of terrorism. Nor does he even openly justify acts of terrorism. He’s far too sly for that, you see. Indeed, it’s all intricately nuanced: he winks, he nods, he implies. He’s a sort of master puppeteer, commanding his followers to carry out his indirect but monstrous directives. In a very deep, theological sense, he is actually the apotheosis of the satanic figure in the closing chapter of the Quran: the mischievous “tempter who whispers in the hearts of men”, inspiring vice “with flowery discourses by way of deception”.
Stochastic terrorism is less a coherent concept than a rhetorical hammer to traduce political opponents and justify coercive social control measures against them, especially censorship. At the moment, it is progressives who are wielding this instrument to delegitimise anyone who doesn’t subscribe to elite-progressive pieties. But not so long ago it was the far-Right who brandished it, subjecting conservative Muslims to the same hermeneutics of suspicion that progressives currently direct at conservatives.
Indeed, in the 9/11 era there was a whole Right-leaning discourse on how some Muslims were practising taqiyyah — the art of concealing one’s faith, or lying, in defence of Islam. The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan was often accused of trying to hide his reactionary views; he was “slippery” and “double-faced”. Carlson has become a secular version of this, although I don’t remember anyone calling Ramadan a stochastic terrorist.
This is all part of a broader political realignment, where, as Ross Douthat has recently pointed out, “conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses”. One striking aspect of this is how progressives have jettisoned their earlier sceptical wisdom about the perils of the national security state and wholeheartedly embraced the demonising, state-sanctioned rhetoric of danger, terrorism and extremism.
For Carlson’s progressive critics, it clearly doesn’t matter that he has never called for or tried to justify acts of murderous violence. What instead matters is that Carlson, and others who share similar views, be silenced. The concept of stochastic terrorism is designed to do just that because it allows political partisans to throw the darkest shade at their enemies without ever having to back it up with actual evidence. This must be resisted.