The Legacy of William Powell and The Anarchist Cookbook

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In February 1971, Lyle Stuart, known for publishing daring and unconventional books, held a press conference to announce his latest foray into experimenting with the limits of free speech. With him was William Powell, the son of a diplomat and a former English major at Windham College, who wrote what would become the most infamous of chaos textbooks: The anarchist cookbook. At the event, a rowdy set off a cherry bomb as Stuart and Powell spoke out against attempts at federal surveillance and censorship. Within a few days, The anarchist cookbook had become what the 19th century anarchist Johann Most – himself the author of an infamous weapons manual – called a “literary Satan”, widely associated with armed resistance.

In his recent documentary American anarchist, director Charlie Siskel conducts a lengthy interview with Powell, 66, who died of a heart attack last year, just before the film’s release. Siskel’s goal is to get Powell to express remorse for writing The anarchist cookbook and to allude to a larger theme of atonement for the raging days of the 1970s, when small underground revolutionary groups turned to bomb-making as an illicit device. Such a theme is appropriate for the rolling birthdays of the long 60s, as participants enter their twilight years and assess their legacy. This story is strongly suggested in American anarchist, but above all it’s a very human story of personal guilt for the past. Siskel continues to push 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 history and social implication from his own book. From his individual perspective, having left the United States and dedicated himself to a life of service, Powell is obviously not sure what all this meant.

I appear briefly in this film in an excerpt from a talk I gave. Siskel included this clip to show how Powell faced increasing public exposure and pressure to feel regret beyond his few public statements disavowing the book as youthful madness. But I am not so much interested in personal, even political regrets, as in the complex history of the radical discourse which led to The anarchist cookbook, and gave it such astonishing longevity.

Although Powell said he wrote The anarchist cookbook to protest the Vietnam War, he found a home with all kinds of rebellions and political beliefs.

I understand Siskel’s motivation to grow remorse. As I studied chaos textbooks, I often wondered if the authors ever considered or felt regret for the unintended consequences of their dangerous sharing of information. Most of these popular textbooks are not written for practical use, but to demonstrate that, in a democracy with protections of free speech, the writer can get away with thumbing his nose at the government or to other powerful authorities by explaining how to build a bomb. The tenor is sometimes mocking and adolescent, as in the very dangerous “How to Bomb in Your Mother’s Kitchen,” which appeared in the first issue of Al Qaeda online magazine and used by the Boston Marathon suicide bombers. Speech itself is a weapon, trying to savagely inflate the fears of a lawless, rebellious, dangerously armed outsider with easily understandable recipes. Whether someone could actually conduct dangerous experiments 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 attempt to use the instructions, and hardly ever effectively.

With his unreliable DIY ideas for making bombs, handling guns, cultivating and cooking drugs, hacking phones and other types of illicit crafts, The anarchist cookbook was not the first textbook to challenge social tolerance for this distinct form of speech. The book itself was faked from other official and unofficial sources of information, such as police bomb disposal books and reprints of military manuals. It was nothing new, but it contained the information in an abstract political rant about resistance to the government, for whatever reason. Its objective was to arm the people by freeing information, like the satirical speech of Abby Hoffman Steal this book, published the same year.

Although Powell said he wrote The anarchist cookbook to protest the Vietnam War, he found a home with all kinds of rebellions and political beliefs. It has become a broad symbol of armed resistance and anomic rebellion, although it has very rarely been proven to lead to actual crimes. However, just the mention of The anarchist cookbook, whether by police investigators or the media, was enough to evoke instant crime and agents of chaos.

One of the disturbing features of The anarchist cookbook is his guilt by association. Numerous discussions about the book tie it to a series of mass murders. The implication is that the book inspired murderers who possessed it, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Jared Loughner, who attempted to kill Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But these crimes do not directly involve the book at all. Sometimes the book is claimed to be a real source of such murders: a complete lie. The anarchist cookbook is an easy symbol of malice, chaos and social deviance for the media, politicians, terrorist consultants and police investigators, who wonder if reading a book prompts a person to murder their neighbors. This guilt by association has serious implications for the courts, where texts such as The anarchist cookbook, have historically been used to paint a damning psychological portrait of the accused (sometimes innocent). We don’t understand enough reading inspiration to make such claims in court.

Should Powell have felt guilty for writing The anarchist cookbook? Should he have repented in his last days and redeemed his destructive youthful passions more completely with a cinematic confession? Due to the mythologization of The anarchist cookbook and its questionable associations, the basis of Powell’s guilt remains a mystery. Like Siskel American anarchist probes his subject to psychologically avoid the sins of the past, he leaves the question: what was William Powell guilty of?

Image Credit Featured: Anarchy by Jeff Meyer. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.


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