It’s Not How to Make a Bomb That’s the Problem, But Why

Following the recent bombings in London, Britain’s home secretary, Charles Clarke, rushed to announce plans for sweeping new terrorist legislation that would criminalize downloading bomb-making instructions from the Internet. Once again, the Internet has become the target of law makers who seek a simple remedy for making a complex world safe again.

If only it were so easy. A major flaw in blaming the Internet for terrorist bomb making is that no one has ever sufficiently demonstrated that the Web is any more dangerous than the library, private circulation of printed texts or word of mouth.

As long as 125 years ago, when neither desktop computers nor the Internet existed, men were carrying out simultaneous bombings on London’s public transport. In 1883, Irish-American nationalists made two attempts to set off clockwork dynamite bombs on trains and in rail stations. Although several failed to detonate, the bombs injured more than seventy people. The bombers’ technology was not so different from today’s. A timed detonator, made from an alarm clock, set off a small Remington pistol that fired a charge into a cake of dynamite.

At the time, dynamite was considered a frightening, brand-new, state-of-the-art explosive, and the thought that radicals could effectively make and deploy it was deeply alarming. The public fear made dynamite even sexier to violently inclined radicals, who acquired ordinary chemistry books from libraries, translated their complex instructions into the language of the kitchen and the home workshop and printed these recipes in their newspapers. The fuel oil and fertilizer explosive of Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City truck bomb was already known, as were most explosives still accessible to amateurs today. McVeigh could have built his bomb from 19th-century know-how.

No Internet was needed for the United Irishmen and the Clan-na-Gael, two Irish nationalist groups operating in the United States in the 1880s, to set up bomb-making schools from New York to St. Louis. One of their members, a liquor salesman who went by the handle Professor Gaspodin Mezzeroff, traveled from city to city offering bomb-making workshops to anyone interested, including anarchists, Irish immigrants and Cuban exiles. Globe-trotting terrorists took the information with them as far as India.

In that same period, anarchist Johann Most compiled information from Austrian military manuals into a book, “The Science of Revolutionary Warfare,” which was sold at anarchist picnics, much as Ragnar Benson’s “Homemade C-4,” allegedly used by McVeigh, can be found at gun shows today. Most’s handbook contained dozens of pages on how to make high explosives and a simple but effective prescription for a letter bomb. Attempts to stifle the dissemination of bomb-making instructions were worse than the disease. In 1886, after a bomb went off at an anarchist rally in Chicago and killed several police officers, eight men were tried and convicted, largely on evidence that they owned and republished Most’s book. In the public hysteria, four innocent men were hanged.

We face a similar moment, when texts themselves have become, as Most once said, “literary Satans.” The attempt to suppress speech is now given the misleading gloss of appearing to be directed at the Internet. But the Internet is not to blame. Bomb-making instructions of all sorts freely circulate in libraries, from hand to hand, and by word of mouth. A basic 19th-century chemistry book in my university library has anarchy symbols scrawled on the pages for making silver fulminate and guncotton. Even plans for advanced weapons such as nuclear devices can be readily found in the public domain.

If a society is really to take on the problem, it must look at the full complexity of how and why people learn to make bombs. Given that directions for all sorts of destructive devices are widely disseminated in myriad ways, the well-meaning censorship of the Internet simply cannot work. No proof exists that the Internet is unique in the long history of the underground trade of information. And yet, on the shakiest of evidentiary foundations, our politicians have passed legislation such as the Feinstein Amendment, forbidding publication of bomb-making instructions on the Web or anywhere else, hastily pushed through Congress after the Columbine shootings.

It’s clearly impossible to eradicate every scrap of technical information from libraries, weapons laboratories, historical archives, basement printing presses, not to mention people’s heads. When violent radicals have stepped down from violent activities, it has never been from a dearth of technical information. Rather, they have been left behind by social and political change, or they have blown themselves up, or their operations have disintegrated through the inevitable internal struggles of the violent, or they have been subjected to the intense pressure of surveillance to the point of giving up secret operations, or they have been persuaded by members in their own organizations to change.

That last way requires an open exchange of dialogue and a full commitment to freedom of speech, even speech such as the publication of information we fear. Panicky, ill-considered, ineffective laws aimed at Internet speech, even bomb-making instructions, only deflect attention from more intelligent efforts toward safety and peace.

Ann Larabee is a professor of American studies at Michigan State University and a writer for the History News Service.