Stochastic Terrorism — the Rationale for Impeaching Donald Trump

The Capitol Hill riot was shocking to watch. Pro-Trump protests spiraled out of control, culminating in an assault on the Capitol Building that left Washington D.C. shaken, and several people dead.

America’s political and media institutions reacted quickly. The House of Representatives impeached President Trump in record time for his role in inciting the riot. And Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites followed suit with their own actions, enacting bans for Trump both as a consequence of his current actions as well as a preventative measure to prevent such a crisis from happening again.

As America tried to digest the torrent of unprecedented news and revelations, one phrase in particular rose to the surface as the justification for Trump’s impeachment and social media bans: “inciting a riot.” This explanation became the go-to phrase for a large number of national politicians and mainstream media organizations. “Donald Trump incited the Capital Hill riot.” The effect of those words, in whatever combination they were repeated to an incredulous national audience, was chilling. Inciting a riot, or inciting imminent violence, is a clear illegal act in the US — something that touches close to the heights of murder, rape, and hate crimes in terms of the fear factor that is resident deep in the American psyche.

And so I rushed back to the news and social media sites to find the exact words spoken by Trump that had so clearly and directly incited his rioters to this point of absolute carnage. But then a strange thing happened. I couldn’t find mention of the alleged verbal bullets that had been fired. No quotes along the lines of “burn the Capitol down.” No mention — as I fully expected to see — of anything resembling a direct call to riot.

Instead, I saw this quote: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

You have to be strong. Okay, that’s tough talk. So I read on, expecting to see this kind of stern rhetoric ratcheted up several degrees, but instead this quote followed shortly after: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” This was followed by Trump’s theorizing over various conspiracies, but a call to action never materialized. Instead, the speech (as reported by various publications) ended with: “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to thank you all. God bless you and God bless America. Thank you all for being here, this is incredible. Thank you very much. Thank you.”

This was not the clear imperative to go forth and riot that I was looking for. So I went to Twitter to see the incendiary words that led to his ban on that platform. One of the two quotes referenced by Twitter was Trump’s January 8th tweet: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” Again, not the torrent of fire and brimstone I was expecting to see. Instead, the tweet reminded me very much of the Peanut Butter Falcon’s clever riposte: “You are not invited to my birthday party!”

So why the near universal condemnation of Trump? To understand that, we must first add a new phrase to the American lexicon: stochastic terrorism.

The word stochastic means “unpredictable or nondeterministic; having a random probability pattern.” But when coupled with the word “terrorism,” it means something quite different. Stochastic terrorism is commonly defined as “using mass communications to inspire statistically probable acts of terrorism.” Importantly, the definition doesn’t require the perpetrator to have any awareness of their actions. All it requires is for the inspired violence to be predictable by a statistician. The perpetrator may have intended to incite violence, may have merely had an inkling that violence may ensue as a result of their words and then recklessly decided to speak them anyway, or may have had no clue whatsoever that someone may take their words the wrong way and act out in a crazy fashion. None of these possibilities preclude a determination of stochastic terrorism. The only thing required is for words to be spoken, and for someone to predict that the words — no matter how innocuous or weak — might lead to harm.

No one can accurately know how purposefully, or conversely how completely harmlessly, Trump may have intended his choice of words. But in the application of stochastic terrorism, that doesn’t matter. Trump spoke. People rioted. And statisticians (whether of the professional or armchair variety) inferred a predictive link between the two. For everyone from the US House of Representatives to mainstream media, that was enough to allege that a riot had been incited.

Of course, most of the people who have judged Trump accordingly have probably never even heard of the phrase “stochastic terrorism,” but that doesn’t matter. They can feel that a horrific wrong has been committed even if they can’t exactly explain why. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously replied when struggling but ultimately failing to provide a definition for hard-core pornography, “…I know it when I see it…”

This application of the stochastic terrorism standard is a tremendous moment in American history. We have crossed a line that cannot now be uncrossed. This moment will certainly change the Republican party in deep and profound ways, and it will embolden our political and media institutions to no longer look into the hearts and minds of our nation’s citizens when determining guilt, but to look merely for a perceived link between a person’s words and any manner of subsequent events that may follow.

Importantly, it is imperative for the integrity of these same political and media institutions that we move forward from this day and apply this consistent standard of stochastic terrorism with an unbiased, objective, and unflinching approach each and every time that a similar serious incident occurs, even if the perpetrator is one of our most noble heroes. This includes taking an earnest look at several prominent BLM supporters who, prior to riots in several major US cities that resulted in fatalities, used their social media platforms to demand that protestors push back on their opposition. Words were spoken, violence later occurred, and a predictable link could potentially be made between the two. An approach to justice that only ensnares those “not on our side” is not justice at all; we must be consistent, uniform and fair in order to maintain our moral and legal high ground.

There are of course extenuating circumstances and other factors to consider, such as the application of a reasonable statute of limitations. Thus Nancy Pelosi, who tweeted “Our election was hijacked” in 2017 would have seen too much time elapse to be plausibly linked to the left-wing violence of 2020. However, Kamala Harris’ contemporaneous statements about the 2020 protests are more concerning, particularly when she said, “They’re not gonna let up, and they should not.” If we are to be consistent in the application of the theory of stochastic terrorism, we must investigate any and all statements such as these — including provocative statements made by social media influencers during this same period of violent unrest — with a high level of attention and earnest deliberation.

Or we could decide that an overzealous consideration of stochastic terrorism charges against every single person who says something in the hours or days before something bad happens somewhere else…is taking our fanaticism to destroy our opponents perhaps a bit too far.

President Biden and the US Senate, the next move is yours.

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