The New York Times recently offered an interesting exposition of “stochastic terrorism” and its relationship to individual acts of political violence. “Stochastic” comes from a Greek word. In the current understanding, it is used to denote the “random determination” of who will act in response to inciting language. Formulation of the term by scholars began a decade ago in an effort to understand the “lone wolf” attacks by “jihadists” wound-up by Islamist propagandists like Anwar al-Awlaki. Such language divides the world between a demonic “them” and an angelic “us”; it creates a sense of impending danger; and it provides “disturbed individuals” with a way to impose meaning on their troubled lives.
It has been objected that the “connections between mental illness, conspiratorial thinking, right-wing rhetoric, and violence are made in our heads, not [in those of the perpetrators].” Proponents of the “stochastic terror” thesis dismiss such objections, essentially insisting that Correlation is so Causation. Today, the source of inspiration is said to be the “dehumanizing and apocalyptic language by prominent right-wing figures,” which is “helping to drive the rise in far-right violence.”
History, in that awkward way it has with theories, both supports and challenges the theory. In support of the theory one can point to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. The age abounded in engaged theologians who portrayed the troubled questions of the day as a fight to the death between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil. Unsurprisingly, the times also abounded in seemingly demented assassins.
On the other hand, the list of attempted American presidential assassinations is mostly made up of mental cases acting violently in not-polarized times. Richard Lawrence, who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson in 1835, was sent to mental hospital for the rest of his life. Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield in 1881, was believed to be mentally unbalanced or suffering the effects of neurosyphilis. James Schrank, who wounded Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, got sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. Giuseppe Zangara, who may have tried to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt and did kill Chicago mayor Anton Cermak in 1933, certainly talked afterward as if he was crazy. Samuel Byck, who planned to kill Richard Nixon in 1974, had a history of mental illness. John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981, went to a mental hospital for 35 years.
The main incident of right-wing violence inspired by extremist language is the 6 January 2020 riot. Whatever the rioters were, they weren’t “disturbed loners.” There were thousands of them; none has tried an insanity defense; they don’t fit this particular theory.
Finally, there were four attacks on Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020. What are we to make of Presidential-candidate Hilary Clinton’s labeling of half of her opponents as “deplorables”? Or of President Joe Biden’s recent denunciation of Republicans as semi-fascist and of his insistence that Democracy is in danger? Does this sort of talk add to a possible psychological climate crisis? A good theory explains most examples, not just one side’s view.
 Max Fisher, “The Messiness of a Motive in the Attack on Paul Pelosi,” NYT, 5 November 2022.
 Jay Caspian Kang, “The Futile Race to Label Paul Pelosi’s Attacker,” New Yorker, 30 October 2022.