Note: when I originally wrote this review for the site Forces Of Geek earlier this year, I (along with most of the world) did not know that the subject of this documentary, controversial “Anarchist’s Cookbook” author William Powell, was already dead—his passing kept a secret by his family for about six months before the documentary itself was released. The makers of this film had mentioned on social media that this review was one of their favorites, and so I though I’d share it with you directly. “American Anarchist” is currently available for viewing on Netflix.
The revealing documentary American Anarchist, about the writer of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, has a special relevancy for our current age for two reasons. Our society in an eerily similar boat as it was in the early 1970s when the book—basically a how-to guide for making improvised explosives and other supplies for the budding revolutionary—was first published, and there are broader issues regarding free speech woven into the film that have a particular and immediate significance to our contemporary culture.
Here is the dilemma, in short: does freedom of expression cover material and commentary that has been proven to incite violence in others?
American Anarchist traces the history of The Anarchist Cookbook through a series of photos and archival videos, but the bulk of it takes place in the house of the its author William Powell as he is grilled off-camera by the relentless interviewer (who I assume is the documentary’s director Charlie Siskel). Don’t let the sedate surroundings and deceptively simple set-up mislead you—this is some of the most tense and stomach-turning interview footage you will ever watch anywhere.
Powell, now a special education teacher in his sixties, is confronted by a long and harrowing list of mass murders and terrorist acts committed by folks who had the book in their possession. Does Powell feel remorse over these acts? Should he share responsibility for the deaths and injures? And did he really try hard enough to pull The Anarchist’s Cookbook out of circulation?
One of the most suspenseful aspects of the documentary is to see how much of a grilling Powell can take before he breaks and throws Siskel out of his house. The filmmaker does not give this man a “free pass” by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, the complexities of Powell himself—and the utterly tragic absurdity of his situation & the havoc his 19-year-old self inflicted upon the world—are brought to the surface as the interview progresses, and are endlessly fascinating.
The man whose book might have at least partially inspired and instructed the Columbine killers, Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh, and Aurora “Dark Knight” murderer James Holmes was also a disaffected young man, feeling alienated and angry in a world that seemed brutish and nonsensical. In addition, as he admits towards the end of the documentary, he was sexually assaulted as a teenager at his boarding school. And so all that gets poured into this incredibly anti-social DIY terrorist handbook, which the FBI referred to in a memo as “one of the crudest, low-brow, paranoiac writing efforts ever attempted.”
That The Anarchist’s Cookbook has been implicated in many violent acts is indisputable. One could even say that if it didn’t outright “create” a veritable army of Columbines/McVeighs/Holmeses it sure as hell “kicked off” a bloody trend in younger mass-murderers that has unfortunately continued to the present day. So should it, and other writings that encourage violence, be “banned?”
Aren’t we facing a variation of this question right at this very moment, with internet personalties and pundits (and…uh…leaders of the free world) whose incendiary words seem to “set off” some of the more unstable people in their audiences to be incredibly cruel to others and even proceed to commit violent criminal acts? Again, is the answer to “shut up” these people, to limit the wider world’s access to their ideas?
Or…is it a better solution to try to figure out where all this rage and cruelty came from? What creates a James Holmes or a Dylann Roof or a Eric Harris or a Tim McVeigh? What creates people like Powell and others who do not go out and kill but instead use their gift of communication to encourage hatred and strife? And what has created the significant masses of disaffected young people out there at the moment who are open to influence by both categories?
I’m gonna have to ask, because it was recently on my mind from even before watching this documentary…what part has the lack of public dialogue regarding the sexual abuse of males played in at least some of these scenarios and situations? I remember from high-school all throughout college and beyond there being immediate access to, dialogue about, and resources for issues of sexual abuse and exploitation of females—but very little regarding that of males, to the point where I assumed that men rarely ever got raped or assaulted.
And yet it is unfortunately becoming clearer and clearer to me that there has been a “silent” epidemic of male abuse, spanning many many many decades. This is just one of numerous other issues (lack of economic opportunities being another), that to me should be sufficiently researched and explored before thinking that merely banning books, videogames, websites, and etc. is going to make a big difference in reducing incidents of violence or anti-social online behavior.
It is Powell’s life-arc to have went from The Anarchist’s Cookbook to being a special education teacher and helping young people all over the world. It is not a matter of “erasing” guilt, or making anyone “pay,” or turning back the clock, or banning books, or anything so simplistic as that. Rather, it is about: what productive, healing, and effective thing can we do right now to make the world a better place and to definitively stop these cycles of violence and abuse? And I think American Anarchist provides some interesting (and, at times, gut-wrenching) perspectives on this topic.
More to read about on Butterfly Language:
You Cannot Escape The Inversion: A Review Of “Buster’s Mal Heart”
Washington D.C. Socialite Brags About “Hexing” Skills In New Memoir
Did The Ouija Board Curse Its Creator?