In February 1971, Lyle Stuart, known for publishing racy, unconventional books, held a press conference to announce his latest foray into testing the limits of free speech. With him was William Powell, the son of a diplomat and a former English major at Windham College, who had written what would become the most infamous of mayhem manuals: The Anarchist Cookbook. At the event, a heckler set off a cherry bomb as Stuart and Powell spoke against surveillance and censorship attempts by the federal government. Within days, The Anarchist Cookbook had become what the nineteenth-century anarchist Johann Most–himself an author of an infamous weapons manual–called a “literary Satan,” broadly associated with armed resistance.
In his recently released documentary American Anarchist, director Charlie Siskel conducts a lengthy interview with the sixty-six-year-old Powell who died last year of a heart attack, just before the film’s release. Siskel’s goal is to get Powell to express remorse for writing The Anarchist Cookbook and to hint at a larger theme of atonement for the 1970s’ days of rage, when small underground revolutionary groups turned to bomb-making as an illicit craft. Such a theme is appropriate to the rolling anniversaries of the long Sixties, as the participants enter their twilight years and assess their legacies. This history is strongly suggested in American Anarchist, but it is mostly a very human story of personal culpability for the past. Siskel keeps pushing Powell to express a mea maxima culpa for his youthful mistakes, leading to a cinematically satisfying climax, but his effort is ultimately thwarted by Powell’s meandering sense of the history and social implication of his own book. From his individual perspective, having left the United States and dedicated himself to a life of service, Powell is obviously unsure of what it all meant.
I briefly appear in this movie in a clip of a talk I gave. Siskel included this clip to show how Powell was facing increasing public exposure and pressure to feel regret beyond his few public statements disowning the book as youthful folly. But I am interested not so much in personal, or even political regret, as in radical speech’s complex history that led to The Anarchist Cookbook, and has given it such an astonishing longevity.
Although Powell said that he had written The Anarchist Cookbook in protest of the Vietnam War, it found a home with all kinds of rebellions and political persuasions.
I understand Siskel’s motivation to push for remorse. As I studied mayhem manuals, I often wondered whether the writers ever considered or felt regret for the unintended consequences of their dangerous information sharing. Most of these popular manuals are not written for practical use, but to demonstrate that, in a democracy with free speech protections, the writer can get away with thumbing a nose at the government or other powerful authorities by explaining how to build a bomb. The tenor is sometimes mocking and adolescent, as in the very dangerous “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” which appeared in the first issue of Al Qaeda’s online magazine and was used by the Boston Marathon bombers. The speech itself is a weapon, attempting to wildly inflate fears of a lawless, rebellious underdog, dangerously armed through easily understandable recipes. That someone might actually carry out dangerous experimentation with explosives or even build a bomb is not the most important initial consideration. And, in fact, only a handful out of millions of readers will ever attempt to use the instructions and almost never effectively.
With its unreliable DIY ideas for making bombs, handling guns, growing and cooking drugs, hacking phones, and other kinds of illicit crafts, The Anarchist Cookbook was not the first manual to challenge social tolerance for this distinct form of speech. The book itself was jerry rigged from other official and unofficial sources of information, like police books on bomb disposal and reprints of military manuals. Nothing in it was new, but it couched the information in an abstract political diatribe about resistance to the government, for whatever reason. Its aim was to arm the people by freeing information, much along the lines of Abby Hoffman’s satirical Steal This Book, published in the same year.
Although Powell said that he had written The Anarchist Cookbook in protest of the Vietnam War, it found a home with all kinds of rebellions and political persuasions. It became a broad symbol of armed resistance and anomic rebellion, even though it was very rarely proven to have led to any actual crimes. However, just the mention of The Anarchist Cookbook, either by police investigators or the news media, was enough to conjure instant criminality and agents of chaos.
One of the disturbing features of The Anarchist Cookbook is its guilt by association. Many discussions of the book tie it to a series of mass murders. The implication is that the book inspired the murderers who owned it, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Jared Loughner, who attempted to kill Representative Gabrielle Giffords. But these crimes do not directly involve the book at all. Sometimes, the book is claimed to be an actual source of such murders: a complete falsehood. The Anarchist Cookbook is an easy symbol of malevolence, chaos, and social deviance for the media, politicians, terror consultants, and police investigators, who beg the question of whether reading a book causes a person to murder his neighbors. This guilt by association has serious implications for the courts, where reading materials, like The Anarchist Cookbook, have historically been used to paint a damning psychological portrait of the (sometimes innocent) accused. We do not understand enough about reading inspiration to make such claims in courts of law.
Should Powell have felt guilty for writing The Anarchist Cookbook? Should he have repented in his final days and more fully atoned for his destructive youthful passions through a cinematic confession? Because of the mythologization of The Anarchist Cookbook and its dubious associations, the basis for Powell’s guilt remains mysterious. As Siskel’s American Anarchist probes its subject for psychological avoidance of the sins of the past, it leaves the question: What was William Powell guilty of?
Featured image credit: Anarchy by Jeff Meyer. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.