- The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society by Ann Larabee
New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; 264pages. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0190201173
The Wrong Hands is a comprehensive historical examination of popular weapons manuals, the implications of their challenge to authority, and the constitutional questions they raise about free speech and security. From the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing to the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013, historian Ann Larabee analyzes how these do-it-yourself manuals influenced radical activity and the government’s response to a threat that oftentimes was exaggerated. She begins with the trial of the Haymarket anarchists. Because the evidence against August Spies and his codefendants was meager, the prosecution zeroed in on the anarchists’ admiration of one of the first popular weapons manuals to surface in the United States, Johann Most’s Revolutionäre Kriegswissenschaft—The Science of Revolutionary Warfare. Spies had published excerpts from Most’s manual in his socialist newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, and he maintained that these excerpts were no more dangerous to society than mainstream newspaper accounts of the government’s powerful weapons capabilities. “Spies recognized,” Larabee argues, “that a double standard existed between the mainstream press and [End Page 189] the radical labor press. The mainstream press could tout powerful new weapons alongside editorial invectives against public enemies, but, if the labor press did the same, its editors were damned through an insistence that speech proved criminal action” (18). It is from this point on that the debate over the constitutionality of suppressing radical speech began to dominate court cases involving radical activities.
From the Haymarket anarchists Larabee moves quickly through a litany of such radical groups as the United Irishmen, the Italian-American Galleanists, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Bolshevik partisans of the first Red Scare, and the Weather Underground, as well as such specific individuals and events as Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the Tsarnaev brothers’ bombing at the Boston Marathon, and, in one of the most perceptive and engaging chapters, the influence Edward Abbey’s satirical agitprop literary masterpiece The Monkey Wrench Gang had on such “ecosaboteurs” as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The FBI, apparently lacking a sense of humor, classifies The Monkey Wrench Gang a blueprint for terrorism and has placed Earth First! and the ELF on the list of domestic terrorist organizations.
Larabee also devotes considerable space to an examination of that “literary Satan” of all do-it-yourself weapons manuals, The Anarchist Cookbook (1971), the sweeping appeal it had to a wide variety of groups and individuals, and the government’s efforts to suppress and confiscate the book. Although the Cookbook was initially associated with the left-wing revolutionaries that emerged in the late sixties, it eventually became a sort of bible for “survivalists, white supremacists, lone wolves, skinheads, and gifted psychotic teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s” (81).
“Popular weapons manuals are a form of popular culture,” Larabee asserts, “and popular culture has often provided imaginative spaces for experimentation with rebellious identities” (7). They are also a sort of asymmetric warfare conducted by both left-wing and right-wing militants challenging the all-powerful military might of the United States. Disseminating weapons information to the masses (who have a right to such information because it is their tax dollars that finance the military-industrial complex and the nuclear arsenal) is a form of dissent. The government, in such an unequal struggle, of course can crush this dissent, but it is held in check by its own commitment to First Amendment rights of free speech. The most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the book are [End Page 190] those where Larabee examines the jurisprudential arguments about the consequences of suppressing bomb-making manuals. Should they be prohibited, or are they a form of free speech that should be protected? There is a tension between the government’s fear that these manuals threaten security and the recognition that permitting them to be published not...