Sorry about All the Bombs

By Dokoupil, Tony | Newsweek, February 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Sorry about All the Bombs


Dokoupil, Tony, Newsweek


Byline: Tony Dokoupil

William Powell wrote a terrorist bible. Forty Years Later, he revisits his work.

It's the original guide to "everything illegal," from pot loaf and hash cookies to tear gas, dynamite, and TNT. There are frank tips on demolition, surveillance, sabotage, and the gorier parts of hand-to-hand combat, including how to behead a man with piano wire and make a knife "slip off the rib cage and penetrate the heart." In the introduction, the then-teenage author makes clear his wish that the book be of more than just theoretical use. "I hold a sincere hope that it may stir some stagnant brain cells into action," he wrote.

William Powell, author of The Anarchist Cookbook, succeeded all too well. His slim, 160-page volume democratized the nuts and bolts of terror. Published in 1971, it would sell more than 2 million copies worldwide and influence dozens 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 at least 10 American abortion clinics in the mid-1980s; and the 2005 London public-transport bombers.

Just last spring, after a father-son team of British white supremacists drew on the book to make a jar of ricin, a London judge joined police in calling for a ban on the title and the many copycat volumes it has inspired. But retailers refused, and the book's Arizona-based publisher, which acquired the rights in 2001, declined to comment. So the work lives on, and so does its author. Just not in the way you might expect.

Powell, now 61 years old, long ago renounced the best-selling terrorist bible he penned. He left the country in 1979, bouncing around the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, working as a teacher and administrator in a series of State Department-backed private schools. He wrote more books, about pedagogy and professional development. And he gained a reputation for--wait for it--conflict resolution.

Powell has not spoken publicly about his role in fostering a generation of anarchic rebellion. Until now. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK, he talked about the origins of the Cookbook, his reinvention as a teacher of diplomats' children, and how he processes the unseemly acts that are tied to his name. Taken together with a batch of recently released FBI records on Powell's case--including more than a hundred pages of civilian letters, internal memos, and intelligence reports discussing the book's dangers--his comments tell the story of a lost chapter in the history of American radicalism, one that still resonates wherever established order is under attack today.

"It's part of who I am," says Powell of the Cookbook. "In the context of 1969 and the Vietnam War and a wide-eyed 19-year-old," he adds, "some of the sentiments contained in it make sense." But in a subsequent conversation, he takes a step back. "I'm sorry that it has been used by people for violent purposes."

In 1969 Powell was living in a tenement in lower Manhattan. Vietnam vets bought and sold drugs in nearby Tompkins Square Park. Outside his door, as war dragged on, the glow of the Summer of Love was wearing off. The peaceniks were beginning to get violent. In the course of 1968 and 1969 alone, there were well over a hundred politically inspired bombings, not including arson and vandalism, according to The Sixties, a history of the era by former activist Todd Gitlin.

Powell had come to New York from Westchester County, dropping out of high school and fleeing to the city the first chance he got. The son of a United Nations press officer, he spent his early boyhood in the leafy London suburb of Harrow, enrolled in a private school where 8-year-olds studied Latin and Greek and were made to recite Scripture from memory. If they faltered, they were beaten. …

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