A manual for murder

In print for nearly 50 years, The Anarchist’s Cookbook remains one of the most controversial pieces ever written.

Photo by Sam Cox

Read this book, but keep in mind that the topics written
about here are illegal and constitutes a threat… This book is not for children or morons – The Anarchist’s Cookbook, page 30

The Anarchist’s Cookbook is one of the most infamous and controversial books in the world. Described by some as a “manual for murder”, and by others as the reason behind the Columbine High School Massacre, William Powell was just 19 years old when he published it. The guide is filled with information on how to manufacture deadly explosives, lessons in hand-to-hand combat, and recipes for making and preparing various types of drugs. Have you ever wanted to convert a shotgun into a rocket launcher? Or create tear gas in your basement? The book’s information is detailed, lengthy, and frightening. But why did Powell feel the need to write the book? And how is it still in print today?

Powell was a self-professed “freedom fighter”, and remained ardently so up until his death in 2016. He wrote the book in 1971 as an anti-establishment manifesto, fuelled by his disdain for the Vietnam war and the Nixon Administration. Reading some of the passages of the book, the author’s thoughts are direct: If the military and government can have access to explosives and firearms, why shouldn’t the ordinary citizens have this access as well? Indeed, many of the recipes and diagrams Powell used in the book came straight from military and police manuals, which he found in his local New York Public Library. He describes how the books weren’t even “locked away” or hidden. The Cookbook was, in Powell’s eyes, a way of placing power in the hands of the “common domain” and balancing an “unjust” societal system.

Never forget what you have been through. Allow the fear and
loneliness, and hatred to build inside you…to fertilize the seeds
of constructive revolution. Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood. -The Anarchist’s Cookbook, page 157

These strong opinions towards power structures and authority were heavily influenced by his difficult childhood years and by his later experiences as a teenager in New York. In the 2017 documentary ‘American Anarchist’ by Charlie Siskel, we hear Powell outline his rough time at boarding schools where corporal punishment and abuse wasn’t uncommon. He came from what people might call a “good” family – his father worked for the United Nations and had dreams for his son to attend Cambridge. Even so, Powell describes himself as a “delinquent”, and he dropped out of school at a young age. When he moved to New York as a young adult, he worked in a bookshop known for its counter-culture publications. This bookshop was on one occasion targeted by the police for selling a book which had a strong curse word in it. As Powell puts it, this was the time when he started forming opinions about the police and authority system. There were other streets in that same neighbourhood which sold pornography and drugs, and Powell grew disenchanted that the police chose to outlaw a comic book with the word “motherf****r” instead of dealing with more pressing issues.

From then on, it seems that Powell’s faith in the “system” truly started to wane. When he became manager of the bookstore, he was called to fight in the Vietnam war which was something he “really did not believe in”. Attending marches and rallies to fight against the war, he would often see examples of police brutality against peaceful protesters. The peaceful protests gradually became violent uprisings. This anti-establishment activity in New York during the 1960s and 70s, framed against the backdrop of a “wasteful” Vietnam War, is what led Powell to shut himself off from the world and write his now infamous book.

The time is here for a mass uprising…armed with single-minded deadly intolerance – The Anarchist’s Cookbook, page 75

The book was the ultimate “fight fire with fire” ideology – an almost ironic attempt to protest against bombs with more bombs – and it’s a wonder how such a book ever got published at all. After refusals from mainstream publishers, the book was finally picked up by Lyle Stuart, an independent publisher known for his controversial and on-the-edge books. The Cookbook entered the public sphere with a bang: upon release, the American Office of Film and Literature refused to give the book a proper rating, automatically banning it in some countries. The Federal Bureau of Investigation called the book “one of the crudest, low-brow, paranoiac writing efforts ever attempted”. Powell also received a few death threats. Nonetheless, the Cookbook has since gone on to sell over two million copies across the world and has certainly reached infamy.

The book may have had commercial success, but this is probably the only positive element to come out of its creation. It’s since been purported that Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, referred to the Anarchist’s Cookbook to construct the bomb which was used to kill 168 people. It has also been strongly linked to the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre.

The book and its angry sentiments haunted Powell until his death. After writing it, Powell converted to Anglicanism and began doing charity and education work in developing countries. He completely repented the Cookbook, calling it a “misguided product of my adolescent anger at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam”, and stated that it should “quickly and quietly” go out of print.

At the time of his death he didn’t own a copy of it, and the first time he read the book since it’s printing was in 2016 for the documentary about his life. Unfortunately, when Powell originally signed the book deal, the rights were held in the publisher’s name rather than Powell’s – meaning that he never actually had any control over how the book was published or distributed – and so the book is still being printed today, available through major retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Despite his relentless revocation of the book, and attempts to be disassociated with its views, Powell could never really shake it off – anonymous letters were sent to schools in which he was applying for teaching positions, and as a result he lost many potential job offers.

But was any of this this fair or justified? There’s little doubt that this book and the instructions in it have caused the deaths of many people. But to what extent can we hold Powell accountable? He himself did not believe that the massacres and the bombings were his fault. He tried to get the book taken out of print, and released many statements over the years illustrating his displeasure. Does this absolve him of anything?

These are difficult questions to answer. We also must consider the fact that information on how to manufacture bombs and booby traps can be found in public libraries (as Powell himself highlighted), and that in the modern age of the Dark Web, this kind of material is largely open-source. The people who used The Anarchist’s Cookbook were filled with a rage that Powell didn’t ignite – he just helped them attain the bombs and weapons to express that rage, which they would have probably found anyway. Powell was young and very angry at the world, a phase which most people feel at some stage in their lives and later turn their backs on. The difference is, most of us don’t have that phase printed and immortalised in a book.

The death of William Powell and the release of his biographical documentary have thrust the book back into public discourse again. People may now look at it in a different way, as the example of misguided teen angst that it is. In this writer’s opinion, it should be taken out of print at the very least. But even so, its legacy will still remain – people will still read the book, use its recipes, and build its bombs. Despite whatever intentions Powell may have had for it, The Anarchist’s Cookbook certainly ignited a fire much bigger and left a mark much deeper than anybody could have ever imagined.