Copyright 1995 Gannett Company, Inc.
May 15, 1995, Monday, FINAL EDITION Correction Appended
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 6A
LENGTH: 1389 words
HEADLINE: A pestilence for the 21st century: The bomb / Cultural 'appetite' feeds violent trend
BYLINE: Andrea Stone
Whether seen in the rubble of Oklahoma, along the Unabomber's elusive trail or in a mailbox charred by a teen-ager's prank, the number of bombings in America has exploded, leaving an unnerving trail of random terror.
None of the new wave of bombings has wrought anything close to the devastation of the Oklahoma City bomb or New York's World Trade Center blast two years ago. But, says the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, bombings did increase 76% from 1989 to 1993, the latest year available.
Analysts blame society's overall tide of violence, the spread of bomb-making information, the easy availability of raw materials, even big-budget action movies, for the jump to more than 2,400 bombings.
The vast majority of bombs are small homemade affairs, which injure no one but are still capable of ripping open a locker or starting fires.
Reasons seem nearly as plentiful as motives.
By far the top inducement for bombers is vandalism -- capricious or malicious. Revenge comes next. Protest bombings against the federal government, abortion clinics or other political targets may garner big headlines but actually make up a small proportion of incidents.
Culture, not ideology, appears to fuels the bombmaker's craft.
"It does seem to be something in the American culture," says Lawrence Myers, a bomb researcher. "Our appetite for the fantasy of explosions is rather profound, almost like this primal interest in fire."
The appeal of explosives is simple, says American University criminologist Ronald Weiner. "They go 'boom.' They make a real big impression."
As an attention-getter, "Bombs represent enormous power," says Brian Jenkins, a security consultant. "To have control over this enormous power is an attraction, especially to adolescent males." Part of the fascination, he says, is that "an exploding bomb has a sexual connotation."
Post-pubescent white males, ages 15 to 22, are most likely to experiment with explosives, Myers says.
This is the same age group that helped make Sylvester Stallone's The Specialist, about an ex-CIA bomb expert out for revenge, second on the movie rental chart last week. They, and many of their elders, have crowded theaters to see Blown Away and Speed, movies in which bombs and their destructive effects are featured.
From TV's Hogan's Heroes to Tom Clancy novels, "the context is one of a culture that is deeply involved in violence and tends to celebrate that violence in the media," says Charles Strozier of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College.
"There is an increase in the willingness of individuals to use more extreme forms of violence to make their point," says Weiner. "Sometimes it's not clear what those points are."
Not that bombings are new.
The eight-year reign of New York's "Mad Bomber," George Metesky, did as much to hurt Manhattan's theater business in the 1950s as did the new technology of TV. In the 1970s, the left-wing Weather Underground and Puerto Rican nationalists were linked to a series of bombings. The still-loose Unabomber, who has killed three and injured 23, began his reign of terror in 1978.
And, analysts say, bombings tend to be cyclical, with peaks and valleys over time. "Bombings feed upon themselves," Myers says, with copycats always a threat. The latest example: the Unabomber attack in Sacramento, which experts say not by accident came on the heels of the Oklahoma tragedy.
The rising bombing statistics represent another trend, though. They underscore a softening of civility in a nation overcome by economic uncertainty, says Paul Ragonese, a former New York bomb squad member.
"Instead of talking, they're yelling, they're threatening," he says. "There seems to be no negotiation but detonation."
And, unlike confronting an enemy face-to-face, bombs offer anonymity, making an assault impersonal and remote.
"Bombs tend to separate the perpetrator from the victim," Strozier says. Bombers "don't feel the pain and the suffering of the violence they inflict."
The effect, though, is similar to more conventional weapons, Myers says: "A pipe-shaped explosive device designed to harm people when it explodes is a fairly accurate description of an ordinary firearm."
Yet, until recently, it was easier to get a gun than obtain the know-how to make a bomb. No more. Recipes abound.
The Army-issued Improvised Munitions Handbook is widely available for $ 3.99.
The classic Anarchist's Cookbook has sold 2 million copies since 1971. Myers says it is filled with mistakes and has led to some fatal accidents.
Publisher Lyle Stuart says he's turned down offers to update the book, seeing it more as a conversation piece for college students than a guide for felons. Besides, "We feel pretty clean about it," Stuart says. "I don't know of a single instance where anybody used something in it to hurt somebody."
The emerging Internet has put bombmaking information literally at one's fingertips.
Chicago ATF special agent Jerry Singer recalls a case in 1993 in which six suburban teen-agers, many of them honor roll students, formed a bombmaking club. The teens blew up 70 mailboxes before authorities caught them.
"They got the information from computer bulletin boards," Singer says. "More information is out there. People are becoming more aware."
The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the role of the Internet last week, with some lawmakers suggesting that bomb information be limited.
Even if they were, the materials to make a bomb likely will remain widely available. Myers notes there are "4,000 chemicals that react violently with one another."
The main ingredient of the Oklahoma bomb was ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer available in farm stores. Even if markers were added to allow explosives to be traced, "There's no way we're going to ban the sale of Miracle-Gro fertilizer," Myers says.
Or car air bags. Myers says one reason thefts of air bags have become rampant is they contain an electrical detonator that can be adapted for bombs.
But perhaps, Strozier says, the upcoming millennium helps explain the madness.
"The year 2000 has people terribly worried. There is no more potent symbol in Christian culture," Strozier says. "It's part of what contributes to the increase in violence in many forms, including bombings."
Bombing incidents increase The number of bomb-related incidents -- threats, hoaxes, attempts and attacks, as well as stolen and recovered explosives -- rose steadily from 1989 through 1993, the latest Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms statistics show.
Reason for bombings Motivation for the 6,574 bomb-related incidents from 1989 to 1993 in which the reason was determined:
CORRECTION-DATE: May 23, 1995
CORRECTION: CORRECTION RAN 5/16/95:A story Monday on the use of bombs in the USA should have said Stern's Miracle-Gro fertilizer contains urea, potassium nitrate and ammonium phosphates. The company says those chemicals cannot be used to make a bomb.
GRAPHIC: GRAPHIC, b/w, Kevin Rechin, USA TODAY, Source: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (Line graph, bar graph, pie chart); PHOTO, b/w, Stephan Savoia, AP