The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society

The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society

The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society

The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society

Synopsis

Gun ownership rights are treated as sacred in America, but what happens when dissenters moved beyond firearm possession into the realm of high explosives? How should the state react? Ann Larabee's The Wrong Hands, a remarkable history of do-it-yourself weapons manuals from the late nineteenth century to the recent Boston Marathon bombing, traces how efforts to ferret out radicals willing to employ ever-more violent methods fueled the growth of the American security state. But over time, the government's increasingly forceful targeting of violent books and ideas - not the weapons themselves - threatened to undermine another core American right: free expression. In the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing, a new form of revolutionary violence that had already made its mark in Europe arrived in the United States. At the subsequent trial, the judge allowed into evidence Johann Most's infamous The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, which allegedly served as a cookbook for the accused. Most's work was the first of a long line of explosive manuals relied on by radicals. By the 1960s, small publishers were drawing from publicly available US military sources to produce works that catered to a growing popular interest in DIY weapons making. The most famous was The Anarchist Cookbook (1971), which soon achieved legendary status-and a lasting presence in the courts. Even novels, such as William Pierce's The Turner Diaries, have served as evidence in prosecutions of right-wing radicals. More recently, websites explaining how to make all manner of weapons, including suicide vests, have proliferated. The state's right to police such information has always hinged on whether the disseminators have legitimate First Amendment rights. Larabee ends with an analysis of the 1979 publication of instructions for making a nuclear weapon, which raises the ultimate question: should a society committed to free speech allow a manual for constructing such a weapon to disseminate freely? Both authoritative and eye-opening, The Wrong Hands will reshape our understanding of the history of radical violence and state repression in America.

Excerpt

Al-Qaeda’s online magazine, Inspire, appeared on the Web in 2010. It included a section on “open source jihad,” defined as “a resource manual for those who loathe the tyrants; includes bomb making techniques, security measures, guerrilla tactics, weapons training and other jihad related activities.” in its first issue, it provided instructions for how to “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” This was a step-by-step guide, illustrated with glossy photographs, for making a bomb in a pressure cooker. Responding to the news of Inspire, Republican congressman Peter Hoekstra called for the nation to “ratchet up our law enforcement and intelligence counterterrorism programs,” warning that “we underestimate this kind of radical jihadist propaganda at our peril.” Inspire’s editor was a young us citizen, Samir Khan, who had traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to reside with the radical cleric and senior al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Both were killed in 2011 in a secretive drone strike: highly controversial because it involved the assassination of an American citizen without trial. While some observers wondered whether Khan had been killed for editing a magazine, the Obama administration said he was collateral damage. It was not, however, unhappy at his death.

When the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, a photograph of one of the devices was released, showing what appeared to be a piece from a pressure cooker. Internet forums and news stories buzzed with the speculation that the bombers were al-Qaeda and had used Inspire’s bomb-making directions. Some wondered what could be done about such texts, whether censorship was in order. Inspire, along with other “jihadist” texts, appeared as evidence in the indictment of the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar. the government was preparing a case that would feature his radicalization process, made deadly by dangerous instructional speech.

Popular weapons instructions like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” have been around for a very long time and have excited curiosity, hope, fear, and anger. Efforts to control them, suppress them, and use them against public enemies in the United States go back to the nineteenth century, when the . . .

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