Terrorism in plain sight

Will we now see it for what it is?

Federal authorities identified the Christmas Day bomber. He is a 63-year-old white man by the name of Anthony Quinn Warner. He blew up an RV in front of the AT&T building in Nashville. He blew himself up, too. The blast rocked downtown, knocked out wireless communications regionally over the weekend, and injured three people. No else was harmed, though. The FBI figured out the who, what, where, when and how. What they don’t know is why. Prediction: that’s where all of this is going to end.

For nearly a decade, we have witnessed dozens if not hundreds of acts of mass violence that seem to have no rhyme or reason. Some are the result of mental illness. Some are the result of recognizable political ideologies. But others, like the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, don’t have anything to them to explain why. One day, Adam Lanza simply decided to murder his mom before shooting to pieces 20 six-year-old kids. No one knows his motive. Lanza doesn’t fit the scheme for understanding mass shooters (unless you believe his autism drove him to kill, an idea, I think, most people reject.) The result was nothing being done. The result has been nearly a decade of mass death.

Some men don’t have a reason for wanting to see the world burn other than wanting to see the world burn, even when, or especially when, they burn themselves up in the process.

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The question of motive matters for reasons beyond criminal investigations. It matters to lawmaking and policymaking. If we don’t know why someone committed murder on a grand scale, we can’t tailor policy, much less statutory law, with precision. In the absence of a clear motive, we tend to throw up our hands. If it’s not mental illness, if it’s not political ideology, then he (and it’s nearly always a he) is just a “Lone Wolf.” Making this worse is the widespread acceptance of this as something we can’t prevent. Like it or not, mass death is something we have come to see as normal, even expected.

The thing about “Lone Wolves” is they aren’t alone. Society is chock full of them. Some men, especially some white men, don’t have a reason for wanting to see the world burn other than wanting to see the world burn, even when, or especially when, they burn themselves up in the process. A “death drive” should be a motive worth recognizing in the court of public opinion, which is where politics is born (though, perhaps, not a court of law, where standards of proof are, and should be, higher). It could be that Anthony Warner blew himself because he wanted to blow himself up.

Here’s the tip jar!

Suicide bombers usually want something more, though. They usually want glory or fame or notoriety postmortem. For this reason, authorities are reportedly asking if Warner believed “the 5G conspiracy theory.” This is the (baseless) assertion that advanced wireless technology causes illness, like cancer, or makes humans vulnerable to illness, like the covid. (Angry mobs have burned down cell phone towers in the United Kingdom and Europe in the mistaken belief that they are spreading the new strain of the coronavirus.) It could be, though time will tell, that Warner believed he was doing something noble by setting off an explosion outside Nashville’s AT&T building, thus temporarily knocking out wireless communications regionally. It could be that Warner wanted what most suicide bombers have wanted: to send a message.

Messages are central to political ideologies, which are themselves central to law enforcement agencies determining whether a crime is an act of terrorism. If Warner is found to have believed in “the 5G conspiracy theory,” however, the temptation will be to say that the crime was committed by a tinfoil hat-wearing kook; that it has nothing to with political ideology; that, therefore, it was not terrorism. The political response from lawmakers and policymakers will likely be, as a consequence, a collective shrug. And sadly, that brings us full circle, back to our impotence in the face of mass death.

I wish more people understood that wanting to blow things up is a motive all its own. I wish more people understood that conspiracy theories are a kind of political ideology in their own right. (Imagine what they demand of people in order to believe they are true). I wish more people understood that conspiracy theories are not a bug but a feature of terrorism. (Imagine a way of thinking in which the enemy is so terrible that you have to kill yourself to kill it.) If more people understood these truths to be self-evident, I think more people would be able to pressure lawmakers and policymakers into taking necessary action, whatever that might be. Given that mass death is now normalized, however, most aren’t going to recognize terrorism even after seeing it.

—John Stoehr