By the time I could get to downtown Nashville in July 2021, I assumed there wouldn’t be any lingering traces of the explosion. When I told people why I was going there, most of my friends didn’t even remember what had happened on December 25, 2020—or if they did, they had only the vaguest recollection. In a year when so much took place, including a global pandemic and a monumental presidential election, the strange incident involving Anthony Quinn Warner had quickly, it seemed, faded from memory. I assumed downtown Nashville would be back to normal.
My friend Karl and I parked in the six-story garage adjacent to Second Avenue, where the plywood in the stairwell was the first indication that not all was right. The plywood, it turned out, was everywhere—on windows up and down the street, for a full block and beyond, and stretching onto side streets. This had been a bustling artery of Nashville’s nightlife, home to a Coyote Ugly and a B.B. King’s Blues Club and a strip of local bars and clubs. Now it was a cordoned off construction zone.
There are still garlands wrapped around the light poles from the Christmas decorations—garlands that somehow miraculously survived the fireball. Crews were hard at work trying to salvage the street that Warner had utterly destroyed on Christmas morning at 6:30 a.m. Having parked his RV in front of AT&T’s Main Central Office on 185 Second Avenue North earlier that morning, a strange countdown began at 6:00 a.m., in which a recorded voice urged people to stay clear of the area, interspersed with a recording of the 1964 Petula Clark song “Downtown.” Thirty minutes later, the bomb in Warner’s RV exploded, taking the RV, him, and much of a city block with it.
Warner’s broadcast had warned people away, and several police officers worked diligently to clear the area in time, but it still seems some thing short of a miracle that only Warner was killed in the blast. Now, even six months later, it’s easy to get a sense of how massive the damage was. The AT&T building itself is a ruin, three brick walls and not much else.
Just at the edge of the roped-off area is the Original Snuff Shop, a tobacco shop that has just reopened after six months of renovations. I talk to the two employees, who relay a number of theories they’ve over heard as to what has happened here. Sean tells me he heard one story that some uncounted ballots for Donald Trump were being held here, ballots from Georgia that were deliberately removed to ensure Joe Biden’s victory in that state.
Karl and I were not going to see any lizard people. There were no lizard people to be found.
He’s also heard another story, that the bomb was instigated by the business improvement district, which wanted to renovate Second Avenue and paid Warner to commit suicide so that they could destroy the block and start again. Wyatt, meanwhile, tells me a friend is convinced that it wasn’t a bomb at all, that it was a missile strike, and that in certain YouTube videos you can see the missile onscreen a split second before the explosion.
Wyatt and Sean are both skeptical of these various theories, though Sean did end up more or less shrugging as to what actually happened. “Nobody will ever really know,” he tells me. I understand his hesitation. After all, these theories, as farfetched as they clearly are, aren’t that much more bizarre than the actual story, that Anthony Warner Quinn was targeting the AT&T building because he believed a secret race of reptilian overlords were using 5G technology as a mass mind control device.
He’s not alone. In 2022, a documentary titled Watch the Water began to circulate amongst conspiracy theorists, claiming that Covid19 is not a virus; it is a synthetic form of snake venom, and it’s being distributed through vaccines and public drinking water systems. “I think the plan all along was to get the serpent’s, the evil one’s DNA into your Godcreated DNA,” chiropractor Bryan Ardis explains in the video. “They’re using mRNA . . . from, I believe, the king cobra venom. And I think they want to get that venom inside of you and make you a hybrid of Satan.”
If this sometimes seems absurd, it can get tragic quickly. In August 2021, the owner of a Christian surf school in Santa Barbara, California, drove his two young children to the Mexican resort town of Rosarito, where he killed both children (ages two years and ten months) and left their bodies by the side of the road. He would later claim that his wife “possessed serpent DNA” and he had killed his children out of fear of “interbreeding” between humans and reptilians—a theory he seems to have adopted through the work of ex-athlete and Green Party politician David Icke.
The idea of lizard people—reptilian aliens with vaguely humanoid shapes, who wear human disguises so as to move undetected in our midst—is a longstanding trope in science fiction, appearing in pulp magazines through the decades. The idea broke through into mainstream consciousness through the movie, and subsequent TV show, V. The miniseries’ creator, Kenneth Johnson, took Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist takeover of the United States, and adapted it for the science fiction genre, creating a narrative about a seemingly benign visitation by extraterrestrials who look just like us and come in peace.
Conspiracists like David Icke work by developing a kind of Ponzi scheme of false knowledge, offering lower tier believers their own epistemic capital.
As they insinuate themselves into human government and culture, it slowly becomes apparent that underneath their human masks they are in fact bipedal reptoids who are secretly consuming humans for food. It was meant as a clear allegory for Nazi Germany, down to the Visitors’ uniforms and swastikalike insignias (“The Nazis showed us one face for a while and then they took it off and showed us their real faces—metaphorically speaking,” Johnson explained.).
V was a ratings hit and a cultural sensation, but while it made for great television, within a decade there were some who had begun to take a version of it as literal truth. The strange transformation of fiction into fact happened primarily through David Icke. Born in Leicester, England, in 1952, Icke became famous as a footballer, enjoying a meteoric rise before injuries ended his career in 1971.
He spent the 1970s and ’80s as a journalist and broadcaster, with reliably leftwing political views, and in mid-1988, he announced he was running in the upcoming general election as a Green Party candidate—within a year, he had ascended through the ranks of the organization, being elected party spokesman. Embracing far-left environmentalism, Icke also began to adopt a New Age dimension to his public persona, publishing a series of books that moved him further away from mainstream politics and journalism and into strange, conspiratorial musings.
In The Robots’ Rebellion (1994), Icke explains “a story of a conspiracy to control the human race,” one created by “manipulators” who “do not want us to know that we are eternal beings of light and love with limitless potential”; unfolding a cosmology that reads like a synthesis of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology, the Book of Genesis, and Star Wars, Icke prophesied a coming time when the world will be “resynchronised.”
He gave a name to these manipulators in The Robots’ Rebellion: the “Brotherhood,” an amalgamation of Freemason motifs and a grab bag of images cobbled together from everyone from the ancient Egyptians to the Nazis. He goes on to explain how the world is controlled by this Brotherhood, indicating that the “swastika, the lamb, the obelisk, the apron . . . and of course the pyramid and eye are still the symbols of the Brotherhood societies.”
Freemasons, he goes on to elaborate in 1995’s . . . And the Truth Shall Set You Free, manipulated the events of the Revolutionary War to gain control of the United States, which is supposedly why one can still find an image of an eye atop a pyramid on the US dollar bill. But even these “Global Elite” are only partially responsible for the widespread negative energy that keeps humans from realizing their limitless potential for light and love. For behind the Global Elite are a group of “negative manipulators on the Fourth Dimension”: the Prison Warders.
These extra terrestrials “manipulate the Brotherhood network, and the Brotherhood network manipulates the world. Each lower level doesn’t know what the level above knows, and none of them knows what the Prison Warders know. It is a manipulators’ paradise, with most people within it not knowing what they are part of or what the final goal will be.” By The Biggest Secret (1998), Icke was ready to describe these Prison Warders in greater detail: known as the Anunnaki, they are reptilian extraterrestrials from the planet Draco—and their existence is the biggest secret lying behind war, inequality, injustice, and your own personal feelings of frustration and unhappiness.
In a landscape populated by manipulating elites and sheeple, conspiracists emerge as a third category: they are not allied with the controlling elite, but they are enlightened in a way that differentiates them from the sheeple.
In addition to repeating conspiracy theories about the Freemasons and the Illuminati, Icke has also at times referenced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They reappear throughout his books and he quotes from them heavily, citing their ability to correctly predict world events— while at the same time attempting to distance himself from charges of anti-Semitism. “I call them the Illuminati Protocols,” he writes in . . . And the Truth Shall Set You Free. “Some say they were a forgery made public only to discredit Jews, and I use the term ‘illuminati Protocols’ to get away from the Jewish emphasis.” Icke claims that they pre-existed their appearance in the late nineteenth century and were originally focused on an elite group called the Priory of Sion, the leader ship of the Knights Templar. Thus, Icke argues, they’re authentic, but were later altered to be about Judaism.
“Whatever the arguments,” he concludes, “one fact cannot be denied, given the hindsight of the last 100 years. The Protocols, from wherever they came, were a quite stunning prophecy of what has happened in the twentieth century in terms of wars and the manipulation I am exposing here. Whoever wrote them sure as heck knew what the game plan was.”
Icke is not the first writer to offer up The Protocols while simultaneously attempting to distance themselves from anti-Semitism. Icke him self claims to have borrowed the Priory of Sion thesis from Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s book Holy Blood, Holy Grail—a work of speculative nonfiction that heavily influenced Dan Brown’s mega-blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.
Milton William Cooper, a conspiracist who built a long career out of UFO theories that became an increasingly strange and elaborate set of paranoid accusations and musings about world events, also celebrates the Protocols in his perennially in-print book Behold a Pale Horse. In his book, Cooper reprinted the Protocols in its entirety, offering for context a headnote that reads “Every aspect of this plan to subjugate the world has since become reality, validating the authenticity of conspiracy,” while also instructing that “reference to ‘Jews’ should be replaced with the word ‘Illuminati’; and the word ‘goyim’ should be replaced with the word ‘cattle.’”
Cooper, along with Icke and Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, all appear to be attempting to transform the Protocols from a literal slur against the Jewish community into something like a structural narrative that encapsulates a wider conspiracy. It does not excuse the Protocols, and whether or not they felt they were being anti-Semitic in doing so is irrelevant; they introduced them to a new generation of readers who were free to discard or embrace their anti-Semitic content. The flourishing of visibly anti-Semitic content that references the Protocols on YouTube and other social media sites suggests that the damage has been done regardless of their intentions.
But it also reflects the direction in which conspiracy theories surrounding secret societies began to move by the end of the millennium. What has happened by the 1990s is that there are no longer distinct moral panics. It’s become syncretic: everything gets folded into the same morass, without distinction.
It is simultaneously anti-Semitic but also welcoming to Jews and others who ignore the anti-Semitic tinge. It can be about aliens, or about the Illuminati, or about lizard people—but it doesn’t have to be about any of these things in particular. No longer is a specific article of faith required for membership in this group.
What draws people to such outlandish theories? When David Robertson looked into those who’d gravitated toward David Icke and others who had blurred the line between science fiction and conspiracy, he repeatedly found a yearning for something he called epistemic capital. For most conspiracists, there is a belief that the masses are ignorant, acquiescent, and unable to understand what is happening to them—encapsulated most succinctly in a term popularized by William Cooper: “sheeple.” While Cooper, Icke, and others seek to enlighten the masses, there is a persistent pessimism that they’ll never be able to receive the true enlightenment concerning the Illuminati, the lizard people, or other malevolent figures.
In a landscape populated by manipulating elites and sheeple, conspiracists emerge as a third category: they are not allied with the controlling elite, but they are enlightened in a way that differentiates them from the sheeple. Robertson suggests that they thus see themselves as a “counter-elite”: although they lack the power of the elites, they nonetheless have an exclusive knowledge—their capital is epistemic rather than financial. It is, so to speak, a knowledge-based economy all its own.
The flourishing of visibly anti-Semitic content that references the Protocols on YouTube and other social media sites suggests that the damage has been done.
So while we may think of the conspiracist’s world—one in which shadowy, malevolent forces control everything, dominate our every move, and engage in horrific acts of violence and murder to pursue their goals—as a dark, strange, and terrifying outlook, for the conspiracist there is actually a measure of power in thinking this way, because it elevates them above the sheeple who know nothing, and vests them with epistemic capital.
It’s like a strange form of cryptocurrency. This form of capital is ultimately worthless, because it’s not based on truth (though peddling such nonsense can be quite lucrative for hucksters like Icke). The value of such epistemic capital turns out to be based only on how many other people believe it and buy into it. Conspiracists like Icke work by developing a kind of Ponzi scheme of false knowledge, offering lower tier believers their own epistemic capital: secret clues, hidden riddles, shibboleths, and other insider knowledge. They encourage a kind of mining of new secrets: spend your time on the Web finding new clues—all of which further enhances the value of the secrets and knowledge already held by those at the top of this pyramid scheme.
This mechanism has been greatly aided by the rise of the Internet, which increasingly has put the raw material of such epistemic capital in the hands of ordinary individuals, who can stitch together facts and data from any number of sources to come to whatever conclusion they’d like.
This surfeit of information has not created more clarity; rather, it has heightened the question of how we know what we know. As we are increasingly inundated with mediated sources of information— television news, social media, etc.—more and more of our daily work is involved in evaluating the sources of such information, determining who is trustworthy, and adjudicating which news items will be believed or dismissed.
One last bit of information I was able to learn about the Nashville bomber was that he had apparently spent a great deal of time out in Montgomery Bell State Park, hunting lizard people. It seemed entirely unlike any other version of the lizard people narrative I’d heard, but I wanted to see for myself, so Karl and I drove out to the park. It was a lovely midsummer day, a light drizzle falling intermittently, leaving the leaves and grass glistening and gauzy.
At some point, though, the thought occurred to me: What on Earth are we doing out here? Karl and I were not going to see any lizard people. There were no lizard people to be found. For that matter, lizard people were supposed to be highly intelligent extraterrestrial overlords; if they existed, they’d be in a ship floating in space or in some glossy board room in Manhattan, discussing strategy with Bill Gates and the Clintons. They weren’t a random bunch of cryptids like Bigfoot or the Chupacabra, roaming the forest waiting to be caught by hikers. Slowly, the absurdity of the trip sank in.
Not knowing what else to do, we walked into the ranger station. The rangers at the front desk were initially friendly; one woman got up from her desk and came to the front counter, where she handed us a map and discussed pleasantries. After a few minutes just passing time, I asked about Warner and his lizard people hunting out here, at which point her eyes narrowed. “Do you know anything about that guy?” I asked. She watched me closely, trying, I suppose, to divine my motives for such a question. After a few seconds, she turned to her coworker, seated at her desk twenty feet away.
“Hey, Mary, do you know anything about any supposed lizard people and that guy who supposedly blew himself up on Second Avenue?”
No, Mary said after a pause, no, she did not.
From the Book Under the Eye of Power by Colin Dickey. Copyright © 2023 by Colin Dickey. Published by arrangement with Viking Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.