Members Only | November 17, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
‘Stochastic terrorism’ works well for the Republicans
There is, alas, more to come.
In the early morning of October 28, 42-year-old David Wayne DePape was arrested inside Nancy Pelosi’s house. DePape reportedly broke in and shouted, “Where is Nancy!” The speaker of the House, and third in line for the presidency, was not home. Her 82-year-old husband Paul Pelosi was there, and he called 911.
According to the criminal complaint, Paul Pelosi called at 2:23 am, and the San Francisco Police arrived at 2:31, at which time they saw DePape and Pelosi both holding a hammer. The officers asked both to drop it. Paul Pelosi complied, giving DePape free rein to swing the hammer and strike Paul Pelosi on the head.
The officers restrained DePape, but Paul Pelosi was left with a skull fracture from the blow and injuries to his arm and hands. Paul Pelosi underwent surgery to repair the skull fracture and is expected to make a full recovery.
DePape is a troubled man with a checkered past and mental health issues. But from what I have read, this is best explained as a clumsy but deliberate and dangerous act of political violence. DePape, as he said to the police, was going to “break the kneecaps” of the “leader of the pack” (Nancy Pelosi) if she lied to him. (DePape pleaded not guilty to federal criminal charges on Tuesday.)
Once DePape’s name was linked to the incident, journalists and internet sleuths dug into his online history to discover a motive. They found what many expected – a scattershot of “screeds against Jews, Black people, Democrats, the media and transgender people.” According to the Post, DePape had a domain registered in his name called FrenlyFrens.com. As the Post noted, Frens is “the phonetic spelling of ‘friend,’ which has become a slang term adopted by many in the far right — a term that is sometimes written as an acronym for Far Right Ethno-Nationalist.”
Over several years, a term has entered into the discourse to explain such acts of extremist violence that crop up out of nowhere, often from people leading otherwise ordinary lives (people I have called “extreme normal”).
The term is “stochastic terrorism.”
It has been in our lexicon since at least 2011. Its use has grown with the increased frequency of attempted and realized acts of extremism.
Think the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the hate-filled mass shootings in Buffalo and El Paso, and of course the J6 insurrection. All of these incidents can be understood as instances of stochastic terrorism.
So what is it?
One definition: “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.”
In simple terms: as a collection of people hear more bad things about a person or another group, the likelihood increases that someone within that group – we don’t know who or how – will commit violence.
In simpler terms: If a group of people hear from Republican authority figures and thought leaders that Democrats are satanic pedophiles, somebody is going to eventually grab a hammer and march over to the residence of their local Democratic representative.
I credit Juliette Kayyem, a lecturer in the Harvard Kennedy School, and former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama Administration, for popularizing the term in a 2019 Post op-ed.
Viewing what is happening in America today as anything short of an ideological conflict — with one side heavily armed, the other side shopping for school supplies at a Walmart — is to disengage each individual incident from the terrorist rhetoric that breeds it.
I agree with this.
Are people on the left ready to engage with the gravity of it?
The midterms were a prologue to an ideological struggle for the soul of this country.
A sizable portion of the right, marinating in disinformation and distortions, have developed an understanding that “their” country is being taken over by a group of people fundamentally different than they are.
Elections, for them, are cool things to have. They will show up and show out in vigor for whichever Republican candidate the party props up in front of them (eg, Herschel Walker). But they will be damned if they allow these “others” to impose what they see as un-American values on them.
This is not political calculus.
This is ideological conflict.
As Kayyem stated, one side is heavily armed, the other side is shopping for school supplies at a Walmart. Most of America’s firearms are owned by Republicans, and several investigations from news agencies, as well as reports from the federal government have shown an association between extremism and being a current or past member of the military.
Pockets of the right are arming and preparing themselves for an armed rebellion against what they see as “captured” woke institutions. In other words, we are in the beginnings of a potential insurgency.
If you think the insurrection was something, wait till you see the insurgency.
Kayyem urges us not to “disengage each individual incident from the terrorist rhetoric that breeds it.”
When you get a collection of extreme normal people, armed and ready for an ideological war to take back their country, listening to Louisiana Republican Senator John Neely Kennedy claim that Nancy Pelosi wants to “kill true American conservatives” somebody in that group is going to get the idea that they need to do something about Speaker Pelosi.
Anyone who examines the links between individual acts of extremism and the types of content the individual extremists consume online will come to a general conclusion that we need to find a way to tone down the rhetoric online – especially from authority figures.
I am not optimistic.
It’s in the GOP’s interest to keep voters whipped into a frenzy. They will continue woke-baiting. And because they are the armed ones, while people on the left are gunless (and presumably shopping at Walmart), they have little fear that rhetoric from the left will harm them in the same way.
And so sadly, I expect a few more extreme normal people to get it in their heads that they need to visit violence upon “woke-ists” or storm the state house of a Democratic governor in order to save “their” country.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.