Bombs and the First Amendment: The Anarchist Cookbook

Karl Pierson, the Colorado high school senior who tried to murder his debate coach and instead gravely wounded a random student, Claire Davis, was a self-described communist. He was distraught, apparently, over being dropped from his high school’s debate team, or otherwise disciplined in some way. The facts are still murky. But this interesting point has emerged:

The student who opened fire last week at a Colorado high school, leaving one girl in a coma before taking his own life, was angry after losing his coveted spot on the debate team and an avid reader of a notorious bomb-making bible, according to a classmate.

Joe Redmond, who at one time was a co-captain on the team with the suspected gunman, Karl Pierson, said that Pierson had been reading “The Anarchist Cookbook,” a 1971 book that includes bomb-making instructions.

Pierson, a senior, had been reading the book since his sophomore year and sharing it with others, Redmond said.

Cookbook064It turns out that The Anarchist Cookbook has an interesting history. It was written by then-19 year old William Powell, who was caught up in the anti-Vietnam War movement, as were a lot of us at the time. But as the years went by, Powell’s views changed. Paul and I can relate to that. When contacted by reporters after Pierson’s connection with his book was revealed, Powell urged that it no longer be published:

The book was first published in 1971 in response to counter-culture opposition to the Vietnam War, says author William Powell, who was 19 at the time.

But the book should no longer be published, the Powell told NBC news during an interview after the latest shooting.

“‘The Anarchist Cookbook’ should go quietly and immediately out of print,” said Powell to NBC, addng, “it is no longer responsible or defensible to keep it in print.”

Powell’s recantation will resonate with lots of us who were leftists at that time (albeit non-violent ones) and have since seen the light. The Anarchist Cookbook is widely available, including at Amazon, where it is currently a hot seller. If you check out the book on Amazon, one of the first things you see is this disclaimer posted by Mr. Powell:

I have recently been made aware of several websites that focus on The Anarchist Cookbook. As the author of the original publication some 30 plus years ago, it is appropriate for me to comment.

The Anarchist Cookbook was written during 1968 and part of 1969 soon after I graduated from high school. At the time, I was 19 years old and the Vietnam War and the so-called “counter culture movement” were at their height. I was involved in the anti-war movement and attended numerous peace rallies and demonstrations. The book, in many respects, was a misguided product of my adolescent anger at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in.

I conducted the research for the manuscript on my own, primarily at the New York City Public Library. Most of the contents were gleaned from Military and Special Forces Manuals. I was not member of any radical group of either a left or right wing persuasion.

I submitted the manuscript directly to a number of publishers without the help or advice of an agent. Ultimately, it was accepted by Lyle Stuart Inc. and was published verbatim – without editing – in early 1970. Contrary to what is the normal custom, the copyright for the book was taken out in the name of the publisher rather than the author. I did not appreciate the significance of this at the time and would only come to understand it some years later when I requested that the book be taken out of print.

The central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change. I no longer agree with this.

Apparently in recent years, The Anarchist Cookbook has seen a number of ‘copy cat’ type publications, some with remarkably similar titles (Anarchist Cookbook II, III etc). I am not familiar with these publications and cannot comment upon them. I can say that the original Anarchist Cookbook has not been revised or updated in any way by me since it was first published.

During the years that followed its publication, I went to university, married, became a father and a teacher of adolescents. These developments had a profound moral and spiritual effect on me. I found that I no longer agreed with what I had written earlier and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas that I had put my name to. In 1976 I became a confirmed Anglican Christian and shortly thereafter I wrote to Lyle Stuart Inc. explaining that I no longer held the views that were expressed in the book and requested that The Anarchist Cookbook be taken out of print. The response from the publisher was that the copyright was in his name and therefore such a decision was his to make – not the author’s. In the early 1980’s, the rights for the book were sold to another publisher. I have had no contact with that publisher (other than to request that the book be taken out of print) and I receive no royalties.

Unfortunately, the book continues to be in print and with the advent of the Internet several websites dealing with it have emerged. I want to state categorically that I am not in agreement with the contents of The Anarchist Cookbook and I would be very pleased (and relieved) to see its publication discontinued. I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication which should be taken out of print.

Emphasis by me. Many members of Mr. Powell’s generation will sympathize with him. NBC News has more about Mr. Powell:

In the 40-plus years since he wrote “The Anarchist Cookbook,” he has reinvented himself as an educator on the international stage, running a series of elite schools abroad, before settling in Malaysia. There he owns a teacher training center and writes books on pedagogy for the State Department.

One of his fundamental ideas is that schools need to be made safer, and, ironically, a way to move toward that goal is to pull “The Anarchist Cookbook” out of print.

The book has long been popular with terrorists:

Published in 1971, the book has sold more than two million copies and influenced hundreds of malcontents, mischief makers, and killers. Police have linked it to the Croatian radicals who bombed Grand Central Terminal and hijacked a TWA flight in 1976; the Puerto Rican separatists who bombed FBI headquarters in 1981; Thomas Spinks, who led a group that bombed 10 abortion clinics in the 1980s; Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995; the Columbine High School shooters of 1999; and the 2005 London public transport bombers.

Just in the last two years, law enforcement has tied the volume to Arizona shooter Jared Loughner, the Boston Marathon bombers, and at least a half dozen alleged terrorists and school shooters.


But the publisher has no intention of ceasing publication:

“You know, we don’t ban books in America,” says Billy Blann, who bought the rights to the “Cookbook” in 2002, just as digital sales took off. Blann is the founder of Delta Press, “the world’s most outrageous catalog,” as he calls it, and the purveyor of guides on “Justifiable Homicide,” “The Poor Man’s Nuclear Bomb,” and “The Butane Lighter Hand Grenade.”

Of hundreds of titles offering frank tips on bombs, bullets and blades, however, “The Anarchist Cookbook” remains his most-asked-for volume, he says….

Web searches for the “Cookbook” have grown “more than 5,000 percent” in the last decade, according to an estimate by Google Trends. At the same time sales of the book have surged past the Penguin and Signet editions of Moby Dick, according to Amazon rankings, and Blann has no plans to pull back now.

When told of this latest school shooting, he goes silent a moment on the phone. “I feel bad about that,” he says at last. “But there’s victims of almost anything and everything, and I just don’t think we need to start banning books in America.”

Under current First Amendment jurisprudence, books like The Anarchist Cookbook can’t be prohibited:

Legally, this is all protected, says Christina Wells, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Missouri Law School. As public expression, a book can only be prohibited or punished if it “is likely to incite imminent lawless action,” according to a 1969 Supreme Court ruling.

It’s hard to prove that an act was aided or abetted by a given book, or that the influence was imminent, so there’s never been a successful lawsuit against “The Anarchist Cookbook”—or any how-to guide to violence for that matter. Corporate booksellers have escaped legal action as well. “Their First Amendment defense is pretty strong,” says Wells.

It isn’t clear to me that the First Amendment should be interpreted to protect bomb-making manuals, but as a practical matter it is a bad idea to start banning speech. Power Line would be among the first to go. But politics aside, the story of William Powell and Karl Pierson is an intensely interesting one, I think.

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