The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society, by Ann Larabee

Howard P. Segal on a brilliant study exploring the conflict between free speech and instruction guides that may be used for violence

November 5, 2015
Two molotov cocktails

Increasingly, Americans confront the dilemma of balancing free speech with the potential for technical knowledge to be used for destructive purposes. In this valuable account of the historical and contemporary context of such dilemmas, Ann Larabee begins with the story of Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in Yemen in September 2011 by a CIA drone.

A 40-year-old US citizen and Colorado State University graduate, al-Awlaki had converted to radical Islam, became a disciple of Osama bin Laden, and advocated killing fellow Americans. His fluency in English, his regularly updated YouTube presentations and his expertise in cutting-edge digital platforms convinced the Obama administration to target him without either a trial or a court order.

Killed along with al-Awlaki was another US citizen, Samir Khan, who edited Inspire, the online magazine of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group to which both belonged. Among the publication’s contents were manuals for making pressure-cooker bombs in the convenience of one’s home.

Al-Awlaki’s and Khan’s writings were among those presented at the 2015 trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and, as Larabee details, their role in the prosecution’s case had a long precedent. In terrorist trials following the 1886 Haymarket labour rally in Chicago in which eight policemen and at least three civilians died, the possession of popular weapons manuals by the accused automatically constituted guilt. Prosecutors successfully argued that anarchist Johann Most’s pioneering Science of Revolutionary Warfare (first published in German in 1885) need only to have been near the defendants to convict them.

Ironically, obtaining such manuals has always been easy. They were usually available as published books and articles and, more recently, online. Ironically, too, many perpetrators’ self-professed technical ineptness and consequent inability to make weapons using those supposedly simple manuals has hardly mattered to prosecutors. Possession, they insist, remains nine-tenths of the law. Yet many owners of these manuals have not intended to act upon their contents, wishing instead only to test the limits of free speech. Mere possession of such manuals, they argue, hardly constitutes a criminal act. As Larabee nicely writes, not “wrong hands”, implying intended action, but “wrong minds”, reflecting only abstractions, might apply here.

Prosecutors, judges and juries, however, have often rejected that distinction, deciding that whatever the cause – from the environment to nuclear power to white supremacy to radical Islam – every critic of the US government and of corporate America becomes a dangerous protester.

At the same time, Larabee observes, gun ownership in the US has become ever more of a sacred right, despite countless episodes of guns killing innocents. Repeated and futile efforts to pass effective gun control legislation contrast with the growing repression of free speech when it comes to building weapons found in those manuals.

The most famous US weapons manual was The Anarchist Cookbook (1971), legendary for the part it played in many trials. But Larabee concludes with a highly controversial 1979 article in The Progressive on hydrogen bombs. Both author Howard Morland and the editors wanted to disseminate to ordinary citizens formerly secret knowledge about the US’ vast H‑bomb facilities, not to incite violence. Indeed, the article lacked step-by-step instructions. The federal government, though, saw things differently and tried to stop publication. It failed.

Today, the internet and social media provide unprecedented opportunities for non-violent critics, actual terrorists and government officials alike to perpetuate their positions indefinitely. The Wrong Hands brilliantly guides us through these challenges to American democracy.

Howard P. Segal is professor of history, University of Maine.

The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society
By Ann Larabee
Oxford University Press, 264pp, £19.99
ISBN 9780190201173
Published 20 August 2015

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