Well, by now everyone’s heard about it and everyone’s talking about it. In Lewiston, Maine (Maine!) an angry white man (yet another one) — with an online history of engaging with far-right content and an IRL history of mental illness — used an AR-15 (yet another one) to murder 18 people and wound some 13 others. I’m not even going to name him, because being famous was probably one of the things he wanted. You can read all about him — and how shocked everyone was that the son of such a nice, upright, respectable family could do such a thing — in the media outlet of your choice.
Here’s the thing though. This isn’t the first one. Although the US has in recent history been more frightened of “foreign fighters” and Islamist terror cells, by 2020 more than half of all domestic terror events were the work of far-right white supremacists. And most of these were radicalised by online hatemongers and propagandists.
In 2019 the conviction was upheld in court of a Dairy Queen manager called Harley Branham who harassed a teenage ex-boyfriend into suicide via cyber-bullying. In 2022, Dutch citizen Aydin Coban stood in court facing charges for the cyberbullying of a Port Coquitlam (BC) girl who committed suicide allegedly as a result of his harassment. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in her death. In 2017, Michelle Carter was found guilty of manslaughter in the death by suicide of her boyfriend, whom she had egged on to “do it” via emails and text messages.
There are other cases on record; for now, let’s just say that our courts have acknowledged that electronic communications, like text messages and email, can be used to bully, stalk, and harass people. They have also found, in precedent-setting cases, that when the person being stalked or bullied is emotionally or mentally fragile and harm results from the bullying or stalking, the perpetrator is responsible for that harm. Sometimes it takes years for the court system to grind its way to a verdict; but there is precedent.
I think we can probably agree that a person who buys an AR15 plus spare clips, and sets out to murder as many people as he can in a short time period, is mentally unbalanced by definition. There is something wrong with this person; he has issues. He is not stable.
In 2021 a white supremacist ran over a Muslim family with his car, killing four out of five family members. Nathaniel Veldtman later testified in court that he had been gradually radicalised by online far-right and racist propaganda, particularly the “Great Replacement” theory touted by (among others) Alex Jones on his “InfoWars” website and YouTube channel. Joseph Czuba, the elderly landlord who fatally stabbed a young Muslim boy (26 times) in 2023, was obsessed with hatred of Muslims… and habitually listened to far-right radio which reinforced his obsession.
Of murders related to “extremism” in the US in 2022, 80 percent were committed by white supremacists. In 2022, a white shooter called Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black citizens in Buffalo, New York. He described himself as having been radicalized by 4chan and the web site of The Daily Stormer. The prevalence of extreme Far Right, Far White propaganda online and its relationship to mass shootings is documented and recognised by various watchdog groups. While some of this content lurks on the ‘dark web’ in shady dives like 4chan, even YouTube is a major contender for Far Right radicalisation tool of the year.
Right-wing billionaire Elon Musk allegedly used his special executive privilege as owner of Twitter, to “bleach” the posting and engagement history of the Lewiston shooter; but it’s not that easy to erase internet history. The shooter had a solid track record of engaging with and “liking” far-right content. Content, by the way, of which there was a whole lot more on Twitter since Musk purchased it. And when we say “far right content,” what that translates to is overt hate speech (racist, antisemitic, homophobic, misogynist, violently partisan, etc).
So here’s my question. Why is it that after one murder after another, by one unstable angry white male murderer after another, one assault after another, one bomb threat after another, the online (and in-person) hatemongers who radicalised the perpetrators walk away with absolutely no consequences?
Most of these shooters have histories of mental disturbance. [Why it’s so easy for mentally disturbed people to obtain guns in America is a whole other story.]. They can be considered fragile, or vulnerable (or dangerous, depending on your point of view). And they are being pushed to a tipping point by a nonstop firehose of hate speech, racist propaganda, and paranoia-reinforcing conspiracy-mongering. Overt calls for violence — including the murder of specific ethnic groups, political opponents, or sexual orientations — are business-as-usual online.
When a person targets a specific vulnerable internet user and bombards them with words and phrases calculated to push them towards self-harm or suicide, we (are starting to) hold that person responsible for the resulting tragedy. Why are we not assigning some moral responsibility and legal liability to the people who bombard unstable angry white men with words and phrases calculated to push them towards violence and harming others?
Is it because one-on-one cyberbullying is precisely targeted, aimed at one specific person, a campaign of persecution? Whereas randomly spewed hate speech for a general audience is somehow immune from responsibility?
If this is our reasoning, it doesn’t hold up in comparison to real-world offences. Wilfully killing a specific person one-on-one is murder. But so is randomly spraying bullets into a crowd, with no idea who you might hit or how badly you might wound them. It’s still murder, even if you do it at random.
The kind of cyberbullying that pushed Amanda Todd over the edge into suicidal ideation and eventually into actual suicide, was one-on-one. But the kind of destabilising rhetoric spewed by (to name just a few) Alex Jones, Chaiya Raichik (LibsOfTikTok), Andrew Tate, Stefan Molyneux, and Matt Walsh is like an AR15 fired from the hip on full auto. Statistically speaking, we know that someone, somewhere, will be hit; we know that harm will result; we just don’t know exactly who or exactly when.
Exploiting this gap in our working model of responsibility is called “stochastic terrorism”. The technique is as old as politics; I’m sure it even predates Henry II angrily exclaiming, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” When one of the eagerly listening nobles subsequently murdered Thomas Becket, the King claimed what we would today call “deniability.” He had never told any person expressly to commit the crime, he had merely made a rhetorical, general remark. And that is the essence of stochastic terrorism.
A stochastic terrorist utters hate speech against a demonised Other, utters it loud and long, shouts it not into the void but at an audience — knowing that eventually, some unbalanced individual in that audience will be swayed (or pushed over some inner edge) to commit a crime of violence. But the hate-speaker will acknowledge no responsibility for the crime. All he did was “speak.”
All Osama Bin Laden did was speak — orate, write, exercise his considerable charisma and wit to wind up other men to go out and commit acts of terrorism. Deniability did not work for him. The Americans went after him with vengeance in mind, abandoning all pretence of due process. But if they had more soberly and ethically arrested him and remanded him for trial, surely it would have been appropriate. He may not have flown the planes, but he talked other people into flying them.
Some of Reverend Jimmy Jones’ poor deluded cult members willingly killed themselves; others he had to murder himself. But surely he was almost as responsible for the deaths of those who committed suicide as he was for those he murdered — he propagandised and conned them into doing it.
The weak-minded, the unstable, the insecure, the incurably angry we have always with us. People who deliberately target that demographic with relentless hate speech and propaganda — winding them up to commit acts of terror (directed or random) — in my view are themselves terrorists: stochastic terrorists, hiding behind the deniability of a random spray of bullets rather than a targeted assassination.
The Lewiston shooter is dead. Had he lived, he would have been held responsible for his actions; or if assessed by qualified experts as dangerously insane, he would have been held less responsible due to diminished capacity, but still separated from the rest of society — imprisoned for the rest of his life — for everyone’s safety. He would have been tried and judged, and rightly so.
But those others who helped to fill his head with hate, who wound him up, who deliberately and for profit did their best to push a random unstable and cognitively vulnerable man over the edge into paranoia and murderous rage (and succeeded) — they also should bear some share of the responsibility for his actions.
I am sick and tired of watching them continue — unchallenged, uncharged, apparently immune from the law or even the unwritten laws of basic human decency — to spew their bile randomly into the crowd, to throw their poisoned darts randomly at the board until they “score a bullseye” and hit the perfect target… and more lives are lost, more families broken, more communities shattered.
If you liked this essay (which, by the way, was written by a human without using AI other than for graphics) it’s just possible that you might also enjoy…
[minor edits for grammar and style Oct 28 2023, also to add end notes]