By ann summers
In Wilmington, N.C., on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said: “Hillary wants to abolish—essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
In a general election campaign, Mr. Trump’s loose talk is treated differently. Donald Trump is the presidential nominee of a major political party. He is one of two people in this country with a realistic chance of becoming commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. His words have greater weight and consequence. What was entertaining is understandably being called unpresidential.
And Trump’s own response…
Probably what is most distressing is the claim of precision using the example of Trump’s utterance of “Second Amendment people” and the potential of violence toward public officials.
In other words, what Trump just did is engage in so-called stochastic terrorism. This is an obscure and non-legal term that has been occasionally discussed in the academic world for the past decade and a half, and it applies with precision here. Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication “to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”
Let’s break that down in the context of what Trump said.
- Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible.
- But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.
Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog.
Those of us who work against anti-abortion violence unfortunately know all about this. Valerie Tarico wrote about this form of terrorism following the Planned Parenthood murders in Colorado Springs last November. The pattern she noted there is 100 percent applicable to Donald Trump and his supporters right now – except that we haven’t yet had the major act of violence at the end of the string.
“1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past ‘purges’ against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the ‘tragedy.'”
(Now we just have to hope that #4 doesn’t come about – that violence does not erupt. Though, if it does, we know exactly what Trump and his supporters will say: that they never could have foreseen this tragedy.)
With respect to the above four criteria, as terrorism, it would be better to characterize it as a mediated terrorism rather than a stochastic terrorism, since it is less about the probability of terrorism than it is about the mediated (1,2,3) elements that are antecedent and terminology over-emphasizing a statistical concept of stochastic randomness where (4) after the (violent) fact, is premature in terms of a research program in “predictive ‘individual unpredictability’”.
It may simply reinforce another mediated fear by even calling such violence what some might not call terrorism per se, as we seen with the “pledge of allegiance on Facebook” spree killings that are less about political terrorism than they are about mass homicide where mediated causes are less than predictive (see the media effects literature).
For example if one drives around blowing a dog whistle, how liable for mayhem caused by affected dogs is the guy blowing the whistle. What penalties ensue if we cannot hear that whistle. And unlike shouting “Fire” in a theater, this is more like yelling “Ready, Aim” instead and perhaps outside the building.
Is this like communicative interference that must be regulated to secure the public sphere. In the case of speech rather than electronic interference, at what moment do speech freedoms get suppressed.