Smoke Signals: Buda’s Wagon and Infrastructure Terrorism in Nashville

“The car bomb, in other words, suddenly became a semi-strategic weapon that under certain circumstances was comparable to air-power in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize populations of entire cities. […] It is the car bombers’ incessant blasting-away at the moral and physical shell of the city, not the more apocalyptic threats of nuclear or bioterrorism, that is producing the most significant mutations in city form and urban lifestyle.” – Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon

When the sun dawned over Nashville on Christmas morning the day’s first light illumined dark tufts of smoke above downtown. Like many other Nashvillians my Christmas morning began with local news coverage of a powerful explosion on Second Avenue. Some aspects of the initial details seemed familiar and inherently plausible (an RV transformed into a Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device), while others strained credulity (early rumors of an audio countdown message emanating from the vehicle smacked of Internet hoaxery, though these reports have since been confirmed).

Indeed the early morning attack does seem to have included a warning message that prompted people in the area to evacuate. Remarkably it appears that no one but the perpetrator was killed in the blast. The bombing site in downtown Nashville was in the proverbial shadow of the city’s iconic AT&T skyscraper — colloquially known as the Batman Building as the tower’s twin antennae somewhat resemble the pointed ears on the caped crusader’s cowl — yet more significantly the RV was positioned directly in front of an AT&T switching station. This is a building dedicated to housing telecommunications infrastructure; the 15-floor windowless red-brick structure in Nashville bears some superficial resemblance to 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan, the AT&T “Long Lines” building whose 29 stories of windowless brutalist concrete have long sparked observers’ imaginations. 

Considered as an instance of infrastructure terrorism the bombing was quite effective. The explosion didn’t seem to jeopardize the overall structural integrity of the switching station, yet enough damage was done to disrupt critical services. Many areas around the city — including here in Brentwood — lost 911 emergency phone services. The Nashville Airport ceased all flight operations due to the telecommunications issues, and the city’s COVID-19 community hotline was also knocked out of commission. Communications were affected throughout the region including in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Louisville

Infrastructure terrorism became a key concern for U.S. authorities following the 9/11 attacks. In 2003 the Department of Homeland Security published a National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets. The report details the vulnerabilities inherent to maintaining national and transnational networks supported by critical nodes:

“The facilities, systems, and functions that comprise our critical infrastructures are highly sophisticated and complex. They consist of human capital and physical and cyber systems that work together in processes that are highly interdependent. They each encompass a series of key nodes that are, in turn, essential to the operation of the critical infrastructures in which they function. To complicate matters further, our most critical infrastructures typically interconnect and, therefore, depend on the continued availability and operation of other dynamic systems and functions.” (DHS, 2003, p. 6)

The Nashville bombing thus reveals in spectacular fashion the intrinsic vulnerabilities of infrastructural networks. This vulnerability is not just a threat to urban centers: the use of car bombs to terrorize city populations has a long history, and recent attacks in New York, Toronto, and Nice have demonstrated that a vehicle doesn’t need to be equipped with explosives to cause mass destruction and death. Rather, the apparent target of the Nashville bombing and the subsequent communication disruptions that resulted illustrate the oft-invisible yet overlapping infrastructural entanglements of our networked world. An attack centered on one building in Nashville can produce institutional breakdowns not only throughout the entire city but also in neighboring states. Network resiliency and redundancy was of course the primary goal of ARPANET, the technological foundation for the modern Internet.

The bombing also indicates one of the central paradoxes of our increasingly interconnected technological apparatuses: as the infrastructures of our daily lives become “smarter,” more integrated and networked, they also become more vulnerable to distributed disruption and systemic failure. The implementation of “intelligent” infrastructures in urban environments is often motivated by official imaginaries of omniscient visibility and pervasive control, and accordingly produce attendant anxieties over authoritarian encroachment and the specter of a stifling panoptical security state. Yet the increasing complexity of administrative infrastructures and technologies simultaneously gives rise to greater systemic precarity and emergent opportunities for breakdown.

Mike Davis charts some of the interplay between vehicle-based terrorism and urban governmentality in his book Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007/2017). Echoing the DHS quote above, he situates the spread of car bombings in an “open source” era of terrorism marked by “a seamless merger of technologies: the car bomb plus the cell phone plus the Internet together constitute a unique infrastructure for global networked terrorism that obviates any need for transnational command structures or vulnerable hierarchies of decision-making” (p. 11, emphases in original).

Davis also notes that car bombs are “‘loud’ in every sense,” as these explosions are “usually advertisements for a cause, leader, or abstract principle” (p. 9).

“In contrast to other forms of political propaganda, from graffiti on walls to individual assassinations, their occurrence is almost impossible to deny or censor. This certainty of being heard by the world, even in a highly authoritarian or isolated setting, is a major attraction to potential bombers.” (ibid.)

Davis cites Regis Debray’s observation that such attacks are “manifestos written in the blood of others.” Yet the Nashville bombing has thus far failed to yield an explicit political motive or ideological agenda. The Christmas-day confusion was compounded not only by the revelation of the audio warning announcements, but also by the lack of any corresponding media manifesto or claims of responsibility. The volitional vacuum prompted news and social media discourse to project possible motives onto the perpetrator: perhaps the bomber was a right-winger who targeted the AT&T building because of the 5G-Coronavirus conspiracy, or maybe a leftist seeking retribution for the telecomm company’s complicity in domestic spying programs? Personally, I felt the technological elements of both the target and the weapon evoked Unabomber vibes, although the preliminary evacuation notice evinced a greater concern for collateral damage and human life than Kaczynski’s methods.

The impulse to apprehend an underlying motive behind an act of mass violence is understandable, yet ultimately no explanation for terror or mass murder can ever be satisfying or even elucidating. Our current political climate produces knee-jerk responses to inciting events that seek to assign ideological complicity to the “other side,” casting preemptive blame to our imagined opponents (i.e. “this is surely the work of a MAGA anti-masker,” or “this must be a BLM assault on the police” ) such that our own ideological position is affirmed and our cognitive maps cohere. Rituals of scapegoating have long provided essential support for both group and personal identities. Yet no declaration of intent can truly explain wanton destruction, just as no ideological rationalization can justify mass murder.

In recent history the Las Vegas massacre perpetrated by Stephen Paddock epitomizes the unfulfilled search for an explanatory motive. The question of what circumstances led up to Paddock raining bullets on a crowd of concert-goers has fueled futile speculation and conspiracy theory. When police photos of Paddock’s hotel-suite-turned-sniper’s-nest appeared online, viewers seized upon a piece of paper visible on a side table as a critical clue. Surely this was the killer’s suicide note, or personal manifesto, some explanation for the attack! It turned out the paper bore only mathematical equations for calculating trajectory, the killer’s calculus for maximizing mortality.

The lack of a clearly defined motivation can be experienced as a secondary shock to the initial trauma of the attack itself. It seems to deny some semblance of resolution or closure. So far no underlying explanation for the Nashville bombing has been unearthed. It remains an explosive enigma rendered all the more inexplicable by the bomber’s choice to broadcast a warning message prior to detonation. Yet the police have revealed that the vehicle-based speaker system not only conveyed a verbal countdown notice, they also played music:

“Police in the area moments before the blast said the speakers also played the wistful 1963 song ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark. The lyric, about going to the city to seek refuge from sadness, echoed down Second Avenue just before the blast: ‘The lights are much brighter there.’”

Without reading too much into the song choice as a potential clue, the reported musical selection does seem to suggest that the perpetrator saw some significance to the location of his attack beyond the mere tactical position of the apparent target. The use of the song “Downtown” conveys a striking concession to the particularities of place in comparison to the considerations of extended networks and distributed effects offered earlier. And while the ramifications of terror attacks may resonate across geographic distance and within virtual spaces, every ground zero occupies material as well as mental territory.

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