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Nashville Bombing Revives Debate Over Which Acts Get Terrorism Label


On Christmas Day, a suicide bombing ripped through downtown Nashville. The explosion injured at least three people. Dozens of buildings were damaged. And people's sense of security was shattered. But was that act of violence an act of terror? NPR's national security correspondent Hannah Allam has been looking into this and joins us now. Hi, Hannah.


FADEL: So authorities identified 63-year-old Anthony Warner as the apparent suicide bomber. Have they said anything about motive?

ALLAM: Well, the shortest and most accurate answer is no. We have no solid information from authorities yet on possible motivations. Authorities have acknowledged that they're looking into the possibility that Warner was a believer in conspiracy theories related to 5G networks. That's usually paranoia about spying or baseless claims that say 5G technology is somehow causing COVID-related deaths. But in the absence of a public manifesto, what we do have is lots of speculation about motives and ideologies. But no, no conclusive answer. And this is a big multiagency investigation. And we have to remember, it's still only a few days old.

FADEL: Right. Now, the FBI says Warner's vehicle exploded after playing a recorded warning to evacuate the area, maybe to avoid casualties. And once again, we're hearing this debate on whether to even call it terrorism. What are the arguments here?

ALLAM: Yeah, and, you know, it's a debate that crops up just about - after just about every high-profile attack involving a white man who's, you know, connected to a violent act that seemingly meets the threshold of terrorism. Why isn't a guy like Warner immediately labeled a terrorist the way, let's be honest, he likely would be if the suicide bomber were Muslim? You know, for some, it's about the legal definition. The authorities require an ideological component to violence to label it terrorism. And as we said, we don't yet know anything solid about Warner's beliefs. But others argue that on its face, this is an act of terrorism, a Christmas Day suicide bombing in downtown Nashville. So, you know, why the hand-wringing over semantics? I talked about this with extremism researcher Amy Cooter. She teaches at Vanderbilt, actually lives in Nashville. And she says much of the misunderstanding seems to lie in this gap between lofty legal definitions of terrorism and then just the sheer horror of seeing part of your town blown up.

AMY COOTER: So for me, that kind of captures the tension of terrorism - what it is, is it really about the motive? Is it really about how it's felt or the potential that was with that underlying act or what?

FADEL: It almost sounds like she's saying we need a new vocabulary for these kinds of acts.

ALLAM: Yeah. She and others are calling for at least fresh thinking on how and when we use terrorism as a label. You know, Leila, we both covered these issues for years and it's well...

FADEL: Right.

ALLAM: Yeah, it's well documented by now that the response from politicians, from the press, from prosecutors is different when a case is framed as jihadist-style terrorism rather than, say, a white far-right extremist. And, again, we have no idea yet whether the Nashville bombing fits into any kind of ideological framework. And we may never know. But nevertheless, it's to revive this debate over who gets the terrorism treatment. I spoke to Ramzi Kassem, a professor at City University of New York Law School. He advocates dropping the terror framework altogether because he argues it mainly serves to justify government policies like mass surveillance that have been used disproportionately against Muslims.

RAMZI KASSEM: The concept of terrorism, you know, performs valuable political work, but it isn't the work that people think it's doing. It's not making people safer. It isn't helping people understand what drives someone to commit that sort of act of violence, nor is it helping to prevent that violence.

ALLAM: So, yeah, in his argument, he's saying it's the concept of terrorism that's flawed and subjective and, you know, he'd rather see it go. He says the answer isn't to expand that idea in the name of evenhandedness.

FADEL: NPR's national security correspondent Hannah Allam, thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.