Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ann Larabee's "The Wrong Hands"

Ann Larabee is Professor of English and American Studies at Michigan State University. She is the author of Decade of Disaster and The Dynamite Fiend, and co-editor of the Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

Larabee applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book covers the Rice v. Paladin Enterprises case, more popularly known as the Hitman case. And yes, page 99 does resonate with the entire book, which is an exploration of legal and social debates over whether citizens should be allowed to read, write, and publish weapons manuals, like The Anarchist Cookbook, for murder and mayhem.

In 1993, Lawrence Horn hired James Perry to murder his ex-wife Mildred and her son, Trevor. In a civil suit against Paladin Press (an infamous publisher of popular weapons manuals), Mildred's family claimed that Perry had modeled his crime after Paladin's Hitman: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. One of the key details in the case was that Perry had filed the gun bore to erase any telltale markings, a technique explained in Hitman.

The legal question was whether the publisher could be held liable in a civil suit. A similar situation is whether a company can be sued for providing faulty instructions for building a baby crib that results in the death of an infant. Paladin Press had long claimed that it had a constitutional right to produce such manuals, and their readers had a right to read them. If the courts began allowing civil suits against Paladin, media producers were potentially facing big trouble.

The book examines the ways the courts deal with how-to-murder manuals as a distinct form of speech. For example, is Hitman different than a mystery that provides a detailed description of the crime? Complicating this question is that a Florida housewife originally wrote Hitman as fiction. The courts have usually treated fictional works as an especially protected form of speech and not to be used against criminal defendants. In criminal cases, is reading a book like Hitman a precrime?

Another interesting dimension is that Paladin ended up bowing under legal pressure. The case was settled out of court, but Paladin became more cautious about the kind of books it produced. If (as opposed to the libertarian view) we think that the world might be better off without popular DIY texts on how to murder our neighbors and build pressure-cooker bombs, weaponized drones, and 3-D printable guns, then might civil suits provide a disincentive?

The book asks whether mayhem manuals are important forms of creative, political expression (no matter how misguided) or are so dangerous that the state must do what it can to suppress them.
Learn more about The Wrong Hands at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue