At 6:30 a.m. CST on Christmas morning, an RV exploded in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Three people were injured as entire city blocks were ravaged by the sudden attack. At the scene, investigators also found the remains of 63-year-old Anthony Quinn Warner, a white man who authorities believe to be responsible for the blast. But as the investigation continues, and law enforcement attempts to establish Warner’s motives for the now-dubbed Nashville Christmas bombing, a long-standing pattern of media coverage is emerging — one we’ve all seen countless times before.
As outgoing U.S. president Trump has yet to make so much as a passing comment on the domestic attack — a silence that many pointed out wouldn’t likely follow a bombing carried out by someone who is Black or brown — reporting on the bombing is under fire from both social justice advocates and Twitter pundits. Although Warner has been named by FBI as the man responsible for the bombing, long-standing legacy publications are refusing to describe Quinn as a domestic terrorist or suicide bomber. Instead, he’s “the man who set off Nashville explosion,” as one New York Times’ headline read. Another local paper named Quinn a “lone bomber.”
But it wasn't until the New York Times ran another article titled “A Quiet Life, a Thunderous Death, and a Nightmare That Shook Nashville," in which Quinn is described as a lonely, single elderly man who claimed to have been diagnosed with cancer, and who gave away his car and his home before carrying out the bombing, that criticism erupted, particularly on Twitter and all over social media. When it was reported that Quinn played the song “Downtown” by Petula Clark before detonating the RV, MSNBC contributor and former federal prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks tweeted: “This detail may reveal Nashville bomber’s loneliness, explain his action and rebut @waltshaub conclusion that even without a warning or manifesto, blowing up RV in a city makes you a terrorist. What do you think? And does it matter what bombing is called?”
It's unclear of the New York Times has any official rules on the language around domestic terrorism, though past reports indicate that it's a widely covered. In response to the Times and Wine-Banks, advocates were quick to explain how much this does matter — and how it's so strikingly different from reporting around other types of bombings and domestic attacks. Because, in truth, this is not just about the delineation of it all, but rather the way large platform media groups are willing to give a white suicide bomber the benefit of the doubt where Black and brown people are not afforded the same.
Editors and political talking heads dragging their feet to name a white domestic terrorist accordingly is hardly new. White supremacist groups pose the highest terrorist threat to the United States, yet attacks carried out by Muslims, on average, receive 357% more media coverage than other attacks. When attacks or would-be attacks planned and carried out by white men are covered — like the plot to kidnap and kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — the perpetrators are described as members of a “militia” or “watchmen.” Much like mass shooters are described as “mentally ill lone gunmen,” white domestic terrorists have a history of being covered as misunderstood loners; freedom fighters gone awry; a complicated, sad person who went astray due to the moral, ethical, and social failings of those around him. In other words, they’re covered as humans.
Many of those same talking heads — along with a number of social justice advocates — were quick to rebuke the Times' editorialization of Anthony Quinn Warner, saying that this is a clear cut example of white privilege — even when it comes to terrorism.
White privilege is having a white man blow himself up in the middle of a major American city and no one in the media calls him a suicide bomber/terrorist.— Chicano Marine 🇲🇽🇺🇸🧩 (@kingsrush) December 28, 2020
While Warner is described as a "man who set off the explosion," an entirely made up massacre claimed to be carried out by Iraqi refugees was used to justify the current president banning a whole religious population from entering the United States at the beginning of his administration’s tenure. The violent acts of a few immigrants was used to justify the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The attacks on Sept. 11 were used to condone the unlawful arrest and detainment of 762 Muslim Americans. Americans pointed to Pearl Harbor as justification for Japanese internment camps.
This refusal to hold white men to the same standard — to the same level of villainization — plays a large part in the culture of hate crimes that runs rampant in America. Hate crimes towards Muslims (and other people assumed to be and/or who are mistaken for Muslims) increase every time an attack is carried out by someone claiming be Muslim. It’s the same reason why anti-Chinese and other anti-Asian hate crimes have increased since the president of the United States called COVID-19 the “China virus.” It's one of the reasons why, in the year 2020, the country continues to grapple with systemic racism and its many repercussions, be it a pandemic disproportionately impacting Black and brown people, Black women dying from pregnancy-related complications at three times the rate of white women, and the ongoing slayings of unarmed Black and brown people at the hands of the police.
White people, as a whole, do not have to fear being victims of prejudicial hate crimes in the wake of the Nashville suicide bombing. They didn’t after Dylan Roof, either. Or Timothy McVeigh. Or Charlottesville. Or Patrick Crusius. Or Kyle Rittenhouse. They likely won’t have to after the next white domestic terrorist carries out a plot, either. Even though white men perpetrate the majority of terrorist acts on U.S. soil, they are not considered by the public to be threatening as a demographic.
Black and brown people cannot say the same. The demonization of Black and brown people is not extended to white people, even when white people are at their absolute worst. So when a Black child is shot and killed by police officers for holding a toy gun in the park, he's just a soon-to-be "thug" who should have known better. But a white elderly man who leveled entire city blocks in a successful domestic terrorist plot? Well, he’s just a sad, lonely man who died a “thunderous death.”