271. "Is information on how to make a bomb more harmful than porn?" Chicago Tribune, (August 24, 1995), Sec. 1, p. 13.


If you can answer the following question, you are ready for big time politics: Why did the U.S. Senate recently vote to put smut on the Internet under wraps but allow mayhem manuals to continue to zip along unperturbed?

Objections raised to regulate either type of material are basically the same; They are said to infringe upon the right to free speech. Nevertheless, shaken by the Oklahoma explosion, legislators initially did take note of Internet messages such as “I want to make bombs and kill evil Zionist people in the government. Teach me. Give me the text files.” They were even more shaken by the responses to such messages: the easy access to detailed text, diagrams and instructions – the “Big Book of Mischief” runs about 93 pages – on how to concoct bombs. Other manuals, such as “The Terrorist Handbook,” are shorter, but no less explicit.

In light of th is information, a Senate subcommittee recently held hearings on whether to curb the dissemination of bombmaking instructions via the Internet. Civil libertarians were adamantly opposed. When Sen. Diane Feinstein R-Calif.) argued that “protecting such speech . . . is not what this country is about,: during the hearings, Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, exclaimed: “Excuse me, Senator, but that is what this nation is all about.” U.S. Department of Justice lawyers put forward the traditional objection: Such a ban would “criminalize constitutionally protected speech.”

It was further argued that the suggested statute is discriminatory and makes no sense on the face of it because bombmaking recipes are freely available elsewhere- from Encyclopedia Britannica to the Ragnar’s Guide to Home and Recreational Use of High Explosives. Efforts to limit these instructions only on computer lines were said to constitute an attempt to “demonize” one medium, the Internet.

Following such arguments, the anti-terrorism act, as passed by the Senate, contains no ban on guides for bombmakers (other than it outlaws the dissemination of information about making explosives if it is knowingly or intended to be used for a crime . . . which like saying no porn for confirmed sex offenders).

Shortly thereafter, legislators were alarmed by reports that two teenagers ran way from home after forming friendships with strangers over the Internet. In one of these cases, a 13-year-old girl from Kentucky was found in Los Angeles after her on-line male friend suggested that “we can run around our room naked all day and all night.” Legislators were also exercised about obscene material readily available on the Internet, including depictions of sexual violence and bestiality. This time, though, faced with practically identical objections to any controlling action, the Senate voted 86 to 14 to impose heavy fines and jail sentences on people who circulate sexually explicit material over electronic networks. (Several state legislatures, including those of Maryland and Virginia, passed their own anti-smut laws on computer linkages.)

Our elected officials are not required by law to make their acts consistent with one another or to explain themselves, unless properly challenged. One tries to fathom a reason.

The magnitude of the danger could make a difference: Are bombs less dangerous than smut? Even those most disturbed by porn concede that it is but one factor among many that may dispose its consumers to act abusively. And, they recognize that we live in a culture drenched with sexually alluring messages, rushing at us from numerous channels, reinforcing one another. Each individual piece of sexually provocative material adds but an unmeasurably small note to the cornucopia for sexual promotion.

By contrast, a single bomb manual will do the devil’s work all by itself. It tells one how to obtain the materials, how to mix them to worst effect, ways to fashion the trigger, where to place the bomb to maximize damage and how to conceal it smartly. A potential bombmakers only has to display on a personal computer one such mayhem manual or download the document to a printer.

Social scientists differ about the total effects of porn. While some believe it helps cause untoward behavior, others hold that it provides a harmless outlet to potentially dangerous psychological predispositions. Those who watch obscene videos, peep shows and movies would otherwise be out in the street acting out.

In contrast, I cannot find anyone who argues that bomb manuals have vented anybody’s proclivities to make some. On the contrary, given that most hyper-aggressive individuals are not the tidy obsessive but the impulsive type, one of the best ways to slow them down is to make it more cumbersome for them to act out the violent fantasies. Having a library that is open, and within it the right source, is just enough to keep some potential bombmakers out of explosive mischief. Having to identify themselves to a librarian, and the fear that someone may be looking over their shoulders, will stop others. In contrast, making mayhem manuals available to them in their home, day and night, at the flick of a switch allows them to fashion explosives in complete privacy and with all the comforts of home.

Most difficult is to assess the size of the damage done. Porn may contribute to sexual abuse of women and children, a very serious matter. Bombs kill, sometimes blow away buildings full of people, including scores of children. Maybe Congress took into account that there was only one bombing in Oklahoma while sexual abuse is rather common? Even if one forgets about the World Trade Center and the Unabomber (on the grounds that these expert terrorists hardly need the Internet manuals) one notes that in 1993 (the last year for which information is available) there were 2,418 bombings and 562 attempts. These explosions received less attention that Oklahoma City because they killed a few individuals each time, but still 281 people were injured and 43 were killed in one year alone.

In short, it may be difficult to prove that bombs engender even more harm than porn; but surely not much less. Anyhow, no one is asked to choose between the two; if our elected officials can find that one may be banned, the one is hard pressed to find a rational reason not to ban the other.

Some members of Congress may feel that as a society we have always been much more prudish about sex that we have been circumspect about violence. But porn is more abusive than sexual. And recently we have begun to turn against violent images in TV, movies and in rap songs. Why skip mayhem manuals? I just don’t get it.

If all else fails, maybe we can declare that bombmaking guides are deeply offensive to our values, without redeeming social merit, most assuredly obscene material, and hence covered by the new anti-smut provisions. This will spare Congress the trouble of having to make sense.

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