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The "Stochastic Terror" Lie
The Left’s latest gambit for suppressing speech is built on preposterous grounds.
Ibrowsed the news recently only to discover that, according to a popular science magazine, I was responsible for the attempted murder of Paul Pelosi, husband to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In an opinion piece for Scientific American, writer Bryn Nelson insinuated that my factual reporting on Drag Queen Story Hour was an example of “stochastic terrorism,” which he defines as “ideologically driven hate speech” that increases the likelihood of unpredictable acts of violence. On the night of the attack, Nelson argued, I had appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss my reporting, and, hours later, the alleged attacker, David DePape, radicalized by “QAnon” conspiracy theories about “Democratic, Satan-worshipping pedophiles,” broke into the Pelosi residence and attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer.
This is a bizarre claim that, for a magazine supposedly dedicated to “science,” hardly meets a scientific standard of cause and effect. There is no evidence that DePape watched or was motivated by Tucker Carlson’s program; moreover, nothing in my reporting on Drag Queen Story Hour encourages violence or mentions Nancy Pelosi, QAnon, or Satan-worshipping pedophiles. My appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight and DePape’s attack against Paul Pelosi are, in reality, two unrelated incidents in a large and complex universe. And Nelson, a microbiologist specializing in human excrement, is full of it.
But Nelson isn’t trying to prove anything in a scientific sense. Under the concept of “stochastic terrorism,” logic, evidence, and causality are irrelevant. Any incident of violence can be politicized and attributed to any ideological opponent, regardless of facts.
The scheme works like this: left-wing media, activists, and officials designate a subject of discourse, such as Drag Queen Story Hour, off-limits; they treat any reporting on that subject as an expression of “hate speech”; and finally, if an incident of violence emerges that is related, even tangentially, to that subject, they assign guilt to their political opponents and call for the suppression of speech. The statistical concept of “stochasticity,” which means “randomly determined,” functions as a catch-all: the activists don’t have to prove causality—they simply assert it with a sophisticated turn of phrase and a vague appeal to probability.
Though framed in scientific terms, this gambit is a crude political weapon. In practice, left-wing media, activists, and officials apply the “stochastic terrorism” designation only in one direction: rightward. They never attribute fire-bombings against pro-life pregnancy centers, arson attacks against Christian churches, or the attempted assassination of a Supreme Court justice to mere argumentation of left-wing activists, such as, say, opposition to the Court’s decision in Dobbs. In those cases, the Left correctly adopts the principle that incitement, rather than opinion, constitutes a crime—but conveniently forgets that standard as soon as the debate shifts to the movement’s conservative opponents.
In recent years, the Left has not only monopolized the concept of “stochastic terrorism” but also built a growing apparatus for enforcing it. Last year, left-wing organizations and the Department of Justice collaborated on a campaign to suppress parents who oppose critical race theory, under the false claim that sometimes-heated school-board protests were incidents of “domestic terrorism.” Earlier this year, left-wing activists and medical associations called on social media companies and the Department of Justice to censor, investigate, and prosecute journalists who question the orthodoxy of radical gender theory. The obvious goal is to suppress speech and intimidate political opponents. “Stochastic terrorism” could serve as a magic term for summoning the power of the state.
If this process is left unchecked, the consequences will be disastrous. Left-wing NGOs, social media companies, and federal security apparatchiks will gain unprecedented power to police speech and criminalize political opposition. Conservatives and old-line liberals who still care about civil liberties must expose the scheme and work to dismantle the apparatus that supports it. The line of argument is simple: speech is not violence; statistical abstraction is not a substitute for evidence; and free-association fantasies cannot determine guilt. But the politics of fighting back are more complex. It will require dislodging a network of professionals who see the concept of “stochastic terror” as a path to power.
That concept is built on a lie. It deserves to be exposed and discredited.
Originally published in City Journal.