I remember seeing "The Anarchist Cookbook" at the Checker Fun Shop, a novelty store in downtown Baton Rouge that morphed into one of the city's first bookstores.
The Cookbook was a combination revolutionary manifesto and instruction manual on making bombs and other weapons.
Written in 1970 by an 19-year-old named William Powell who was angry at the possibility of being drafted and sent to Vietnam, the book has remained in print, implicated in a number of mass killings including Columbine, Oklahoma City and Aurora.
In a fascinating/appalling documentary, filmmaker Charlie Siskel tracked down the 65-year-old Powell in his home in a remote French village and grilled him about whether he feels responsibility for all of those deaths.
Powell, who died of a heart attack before the film was finished, says he felt "remorse" but not regret over writing the book. That subtle semantic difference implies that he continued to feel some sense of satisfaction about the book. He claims he didn't believe people would see the book as an incitement to violence, expressing surprise that all of those blooksoaked events had been connected to the book.
He discounts a sentence from the Cookbook,"respect must be earned by the spilling of blood." He said he thought it was brilliant when he wrote it at 19, but at 65, saw it as "rubbage."
Over the years, the book sold 2 million copies, but Powell made little from it, having ceded the copyright to his publisher. Several subsequent publishers have kept it in print. Originally written for left-wing revolutionaries who dreamed of overthrowing the government, the book later became a favorite of right-wing terrorists.
Powell, who says he never tested the techniques he outlined, went on to a noble life teaching young men with learning disabilities, the type like Eric Harris, who read "The Anarchist Cookbok" before carrying out the Columbine massacre with Dylan Kiebold.
Powell lived in exile from the United States, teaching in Asia and Europe. Siskel claims that he could have made more of an effort to remove the book, but Powell says he had no sway over publisher's decisions. He did write an op-ed in the Guardian calling for the book to no longer be printed.
Unlike former violent revolutionaries like Bill Ayers, now living in Chicago as an educator, Powell never actually made or discharged a bomb. Still, he bears some responsibility for the violence his book engendered.
The film raises difficult first amendment issues. Powell said that he got his information at the New York City Public Library, consulting Army manuals and other material readily accessible on public shelves. He said he thought that the general public should have easy access to the same information held by military and government experts.
Would-be revolutionaries could have headed to the library to consult the same material on their own. Powell, in compiling the information and making diagrams, organized it all in one place. He also wrote the overheated rhetoric that called for revolutionary action, although he admits that he was mainly a desk insurgent, feeling confidence while seated at the typewriter.
The movie reveals Powell and his wife as scholarly, civilized people. Powell says that he didn't believe the philosophy that people shouldn't be held accountable for actions taken in their youth.
Powell was a man whose life was shadowed and thwarted by the book. As he says in the film, his skeleton was not in the closet, but in the world. He went on to write other books on beneficial subjects such as educational methods for troubled students. But "The Anarchist Cookbook" haunted him until the end of his life.
Listening to him talk about how he came to write the book, I was reminded of the lines in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," "I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness..."