Nashville, Rockford, and the New Age of Paranoia

MNPD officers stand next to an invcinerated vehicle and observe damage down to the historic buildings on Second Avenue on December 31, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. On Christmas morning, suspect Anthony Warner detonated an R.V. packed with explosives in Downtown Nashville, damaging over forty buildings in Nashville's Historic District. (Photo: Alex Kent/Getty Images)

Nashville, Rockford, and the New Age of Paranoia

"Two attacks—even as any specific motive remains unknown—nonetheless feel like confirmation that too many Americans will turn from ballots to bullets."

If you're one of the millions who believe that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, you might find the bizarre events that unfolded in downtown Nashville beginning around 1:22 a.m. on 2020's celebration of Christ's birthday a little Bruce Willis-y, more like something from a bad Hollywood blockbuster than real life in America.

The large RV that cruised slowly past the honky-tonks and big-chain drinkeries of 2nd Avenue in the Music City came to rest in front of a massive AT&T telecommunications center, and then a loudspeaker began blasting what sounded like a Siri-generated, female-voiced warning for residents to evacuate the area. As six heroic Nashville police officers raced to knock on hipster downtown lofts, the warning message alternated with the uptempo sounds of the British 1960s pop icon Petula Clark.

The relentlessly perky beat of her 1964 smash, "Downtown" -- "the lights are much brighter there/you can forget all your worries/forget all your cares..." -- finally faded into a countdown. Then, around 6:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, a massive bomb blast caused one building to collapse, damaged 40 others, created extensive disruption to AT&T's regional networks, and injured eight people nearby. The suicide bomber, Anthony Quinn Warner, died instantly.

The reaction on social media, on what's normally the slowest news day of the year, was immediate yet arguably as odd as the act itself. I've rarely seen a story where so many people so greatly craved information, and yet no one knew exactly what to say about this Nashville bombing. In a world where a fuming and arguably insane lame duck president of the United States seems to be encouraging violent unrest, where some of the world's richest companies now act like ammonium nitrate for fueling crazy conspiracy theories, and where a much-ballyhooed election only made Americans more divided and uneasy than we were before, what happened in Nashville managed to seem both utterly inexplicable yet inevitable at the same time.

And Nashville wasn't the only act of domestic terrorism this holiday season. In another corner of the American Heartland, Rockford, Illinois, a 37-year-old active duty Army Green Beret named Duke Webb, who was on leave at the time, walked into a bowling-alley bar the night after Christmas and opened fire, killing three elderly customers and wounding three teenagers. Authorities in Rockford seem every bit as baffled as their colleagues in Nashville, noting that Webb seemed to have no connection to his victims or the bowling alley, that he just fired at random.

At least in Nashville, there is something of an investigative theory -- that perhaps Warner, a 63-year-old IT specialist and apparent loner, had been motivated to target AT&T and its critical infrastructure because of an off-the-wall conspiracy theory that has been snowballing during this coronavirus-soaked year of 2020: that the advent of 5G wireless technology is somehow poisoning America and the world. Way back in May, which seems like about 12-13 years ago, The Atlantic covered the growing online chatter that the global rollout of 5G service and a raging pandemic couldn't be a coincidence, and that this nonsense idea had taken root in Europe, where engineers had been harassed and buildings vandalized. Like every generation of suicide-bombing terrorist before him, Warner -- who may have told friends that he had cancer -- might have deluded himself into thinking he was saving the world.

The problem as the calendar flips to 2021 and America -- well, half of America anyway -- eagerly awaits Joe Biden's presidential inauguration is that would-be domestic terrorists like the ones in Nashville and Rockford have such a smorgasbord of crazy ideas to choose from. There are still millions of voters convinced that Trump was the last thing saving America from becoming some kind of "woke" northern Venezuela, or that he alone could expose the actually non-existent Hollywood and D.C. sex ring at the heart of the QAnon insanity.

Nearly 160 million Americans voted this fall, partly as a testament to democracy but mainly because they hoped this one last election would finally smite their enemies. These two attacks -- even as any specific motive remains unknown -- nonetheless feel like confirmation that too many Americans will turn from ballots to bullets, especially when billionaires like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg can make a few extra pennies egging them on.

America has been hopelessly divided by The Big Sort, first into different neighborhoods but slowly into different realities. Now, one half of the nation thinks it's mathematically impossible that 82 million people voted for a guy that all their neighbors, their right-wing TV channel, and their cousin on Parler insists is senile -- even as that other half is flabbergasted that 74 million voted for four more years of neo-fascism. Carl von Clausewitz said that war is politics by other means. In the coming days we'll learn whether the same was true of Nashville and Rockford, and, if so, what in the name of almighty God can America do to stop this.

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