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Trump and terrorism: The predictable link

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Recent US president Donald Trump's hateful rhetoric has been linked to violent acts (Image by Dan Jensen)

Pundits and politicians today are being accused of stochastic terrorism. The most obvious example is Donald Trump, whose rhetoric has inspired violence from supporters, writes Dr Gerard Gill.

THE FIRST people to talk about lone wolf terrorism were white supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, in an effort to encourage such acts from other like-minded extremists.

It has since been pointed out that wolves do not actually hunt alone and that this is the same for supposed “lone wolves” — also known as members of the “leaderless resistance”; also known as “freelance terrorists”. These individuals draw upon a small village of support in terms of their recruitment, indoctrination and training.

This has been demonstrated clearly in the crowd-sourced, franchised brutality of the Islamic State (ISIS). After the group called for followers to carry out attacks in the West in July-August 2015, single-actor violence in Western countries increased substantially. Two-thirds of these plots were inspired by the group rather than directly controlled, which became a hallmark of ISIS operations.

Earlier, the ISIS position was that all true believers were obliged to migrate to the pseudo-state they were creating in Syria. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the other hand, has been committed to persuading adherents to stay where they are and attack within their own country. In this way, AQAP could reach targets inaccessible to their foreign-based leaders. To this end, their magazine Inspire contains a dedicated section called “Open Source Jihad” with instructions on bomb-making and methods such as vehicular attacks.

Terrorism today relies less and less on formal membership or relationships, and more on affiliation or inspiration. This threat is a growing one and it is particularly challenging because, without obvious connections and observable group activities, dangers are much more difficult to detect. 

Terrorist groups such as ISIS and AQAP sending out clear messages telling supporters to kill is one thing, but more insidious is the subtler planting of seeds that in a certain mind will grow into homicidal intent. This is stochastic terrorism. 

The term "stochastic terrorism" is widely believed to have originated in a 2011 Daily Kos article.

The article offers the following definition:

'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.'

Importantly, the message does not need to explicitly promote violence, so much as promote a worldview or ideology wherein violence is a reasonable response. If someone is out there murdering babies with impunity, it’s not hard to imagine a person taking drastic action to stop them. This is what happened when Bill O’Reilly called an abortion doctor a “baby killer” twenty-four times on air. The “baby-killer” was shot to death while volunteering at a church.

In recent times, pundits and politicians have regularly been accused of stochastic terrorism. The most obvious example is Donald Trump, whose dehumanising rhetoric has inspired violence from supporters. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is another case.

While not publishing manuals or explicitly inciting murder like ISIS and AQAP, alt-Right political activist Lauren Southern and conservative political commentator Andrew Bolt have used their influence to further the “Great Replacement” narrative directly linked to countless atrocities. Their advocacy of the idea has not even been subtle, with Bolt employing war language of a “foreign invasion”, alongside racist caricatures.

In the above cases, it may be difficult to know what to do. Arguments around free speech inevitably surface when discussing approaches to incitement, vilification and stochastic terrorism. Even if many of these appeals are disingenuous, the point remains somewhat valid. There are other instances where the line is clearer.

In Australia, after the Christchurch terrorist attack and a statement by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) flagging the threat of the far-Right, the National Socialist Network was at pains to stress their non-violent nature. However, it takes very little reflection to understand that Nazism has violence against others at its very core and any denials of this are only short-term.

Likewise, QAnon adherents may preach love and non-violence to varying degrees, but this is in between positing the existence of a cabal of evil child molesters who will eventually be hung for treason. It is not particularly surprising this worldview has ended in violence more than a few times.

So what is to be done? Philosopher Karl Popper is unfortunately not much help. As pointed out, his famous quote about limiting tolerance to protect it was meant only to apply to explicit calls for violence. Stochastic terrorism, by definition, sidesteps this.

A few starting points might be to clearly define what our community values are and therefore what we deem unacceptable. We can identify arguments that demonstrably lead to violence and ideologies that have clear violent ends — for instance, there is no version of Nazism that does not seek the extermination of non-whites. A lot of this will be debatable but plenty is not.

From there, widespread shunning and de-platforming of these ideas can minimise harm. First and foremost though, we need to recognise stochastic terrorism for what it is.

Dr Gerard Gill received his PhD from Curtin University, studying the influence of communication technologies on modern social movements. He has previously worked in countering violent extremism and is now a public servant. You can follow Gerard on Twitter @good_disc_horse.

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