April 30th, 2013


deep thought of the day: on stochastic terrorism

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Deep thought of the day:

Over at Patheos, Libby Anne wrote about two events that happened within the space of a week, both in Bloomington, IN: a talk by R.C. Sproul Jr. comparing abortion to the Holocaust and castigating conservatives for not doing enough to fight abortion, and the vandalism of a local Planned Parenthood. No one was killed, thank goodness, but they did cause considerable property damage and shut down the clinic for the day. And Libby Anne thinks the two events are connected, since one of those va ndals was the pastor’s kid (and a deacon himself) of the church connected with the event. As she wrote: “It’s almost certainly the case that Sproul Jr. didn’t call for violence against those who provide abortion services, but it’s also almost certainly the case that his inflammatory rhetoric stirred up one of his audience, Benjamin Curell, to violence.

I’m not sure it’s so clear-cut as that. It’s not like this is the first time Curell heard people go off on abortion. He might have heard some comment over Sunday dinner as his church was getting ready for the talk. He might have heard something years earlier that combined with what Sproul said. For all we know, Curell had an accomplice of some kind who pushed him to do it, and was motivated by something other than Sproul’s talk. He may be innocent (he’s not been convicted yet after all), though the article Libby Anne links makes it sound like there’s video of him vandalizing).

Here’s the thing, though: whether Sproul intended for Curell to take action like this, whether he should have known he’d have his affect, whether he actually did have that affect – he was still taking a risk. He was using rhetoric he knew would inspire his audience to take action. Frankly, I think Mr. Curell was remarkably restrained: if you gave me a time machine and a trip back to Nazi Germany, my reaction wouldn’t be to spraypaint the local Hitler Youth office; I’d find the highest-ranking Nazi officer I could get close to and shoot him in the head. (Yes, I know that I’m a pacifist, and yes I realize this statement is incendiary too! But that’s how angry this rhetoric would make me, if I took it seriously.) Usually when we talk about someone being liable for a murder or other crime when they didn’t actually do it, we mean they had some direct connection to the person who actually committed the crime. They helped plan it, they supplied the gun, they asked or ordered the person to do it.

Things aren’t so simple in cases like these because Dr. Sproul never met with Mr. Curell as far as I know. But he used rhetoric he was hoping would provoke a reaction, and he had to know if you get people angry enough you can’t predict how they’ll react. That’s the thing about rage: it’s by nature unpredictable, and not everyone will react the same way. This happens in other contexts, too. (I remember getting scared when a recent Fox News piece had in the comments section, in one of the first comments, “Kill all Chechens” – 99.9% can probably read that and be fine, but it really only takes one.) Whenever you say any group of people (illegal immigrants, people on welfare, LGBT people, Muslims, “urban youths,” whatever) is causing catastrophic consequences they should be upset for, if you say that often enough, there’s a good chance some people will carry it too far. Daily Kos even had a word for it: stochastic terrorism.

All of this reminds me of a really funny NewsRadio episode (see especially around 7:30):

Bill gives an editorial expressing anger at UN diplomats who don’t pay their parking ticket. To spice it up he suggests such diplomats be dragged from their car and beaten – and one of his listeners takes him literally. Of course, that’s the normal hyperbole most of us screen out. It would be ludicrous to hold Bill or anyone else responsible for the beating. (That’s a big part of what makes this moment so funny.) But when you’re trying to get someone mad, trying to actually provoke action, and someone ends up doing this? Well, if you speak to enough people at least a few of them are going to be mentally unstable, or particularly primed to act on this issue, or something that makes them take it too far. That’s entirely, 100% predictable. It may not actually happen in every case, and it’s not the same as actually trashing the office or pulling the trigger. But it can happens, and when you create that likelihood, you’re part of it.