Homemade Bombs: 'The Anarchist Cookbook' Should Be Protected Speech


On April 15th, 2013, two home-made pressure cooker bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 264 others. Similar bombs killed 209 people during the 2006 Mumbai train bombings and failed to go off in the 2010 Stockholm bombings and the 2010 attempted car bombing of Times Square in New York City. While a favorite tool of Al-Qaeda terrorists, similar homemade-bomb techniques have been adopted by militant anarchists, white supremacists, and nationalist groups around the world. The deadliest homemade bomb attack in the United States was the Oklahoma City Bombing, which claimed 168 lives.

Al-Qaeda has called pressure cooker bombs "the most effective method" for lone wolf jihadis to attack the United States and its allies, and has provided online instructions on how to create these bombs. Given the potential for danger posed by this information, some may call for censoring these instructions. However, bomb-making instructions such as those posted by Al-Qaeda and found in more famous texts like the Anarchist Cookbook are and ought to be protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

Written by William Powell in 1971 to protest the Vietnam War, The Anarchist Cookbook is perhaps the most famous bomb-making text in circulation. Philosophical anarchists have criticized the book for not being representative of anarchist ideals, and others have pointed out that most of the "recipes" in the book do not actually produce working bombs. Nonetheless, proponents of banning bomb-making information often point to Powell's book as a source of trouble. In the wake of domestic attacks, whether they be spawned by Islamic terrorists or militant pro-lifers or troubled high-school students, there are always calls to limit access to information sources like The Anarchist Cookbook.

In the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed legislation to make it illegal to distribute bomb-making information for criminal purposes, with a penalty of $250,000 in fines and 20 years in prison. Backed by Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), Feinstein argued that "there is a difference between free speech and teaching someone to kill." The Senate passed the bill and it became law in 1997, making it illegal to distribute material that is intentionally directed towards committing a "federal offense or any other criminal purpose affecting interstate commerce."

Despite Feinstein's legislation, bomb-making instructions are still protected by the U.S. Constitution as free speech. Since the Boston Marathon Bombing, some have called for more censorship of this dangerous material. Attempting to ban bomb-making information, however, is like trying to catch sand through a sieve. The Internet has opened the floodgates of knowledge and no liberal democracy can close them again. Even if attempted self-censorship by Internet search engines and social media websites successfully kept the flood of information at bay, other websites would continue to publish and there would always been the print versions of these instructions.

Even without the practical problems posed by attempting to ban knowledge of bomb-making, there are still free-speech objections to be made. Bomb-making is nothing but chemistry and engineering. Having knowledge of this is not criminal and it is not harmful. Science students, fireworks makers, and curious people produce explosives without harmful intent. Many other people just like to know how some things work. It is not the job of the U.S. government to decide what knowledge American citizens decide to acquire. Knowledge itself is harmless unless it is acted upon. The First Amendment prohibits the government from criminalizing thoughts and knowledge that are not acted upon, and rightfully so.

Here is Judge Andrew Napolitano arguing the legal nuances of speech versus action after the Boston Marathon Bombing:

"I don't think anybody seriously thinks that the only thing that protects us from terrorists is that terrorists don't know how to make bombs," adds Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Banning bomb-making instructions like The Anarchist Cookbook will not make us safer.

Attempts to ban the knowledge of bomb-making are inconsistent with the principles of self-government and liberty. They are impractical, dangerous, and do little to help address the actual problem. Yes, there are dangerous people in the world with dangerous skills and knowledge at their disposal. However, a free society should not sacrifice a liberty as essential as free speech in the face of such potential danger. The consequences of banning speech would be far more devastating to a society than a bomb could ever be.