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Baltimore City Paper editorial on Jim Bell

A Bridge Too Far?


No doubt about it, Jim Bell disliked the government. As far as this
Vancouver, Wash., resident was concerned, there isn't any problem with
Congress that $60 worth of bullets couldn't solve. And he let his opinion
be known in newsgroups, mailing lists, and, perhaps most notoriously,
through an essay he wrote and promoted on the Internet called
"Assassination Politics". 

But did Bell-who, federal authorities discovered, had an arsenal of deadly
chemicals and firearms and the home addresses of more than 100 government
workers-have a plan to murder public employees? 

"What was interesting is that the whole case was based on whether he'd be
harmful in the future. He hadn't actually hurt anyone, but he was talking
about some scary stuff," John Branton, a reporter who covered the Bell case
for the southern Washington newspaper The Columbian (The Jim Bell Story),
told me by phone. 

On Dec. 12, Bell, 39, was sentenced to 11 months in prison and three years
of supervised probation after pleading guilty to using false Social
Security numbers and setting a stink bomb off at a local Internal Revenue
Service office. But authorities acknowledge those charges weren't what his
arrest was really about. 

"We chose not to wait until he followed through on what we believe were
plans to assassinate government employees," Jeffrey Gordon, an IRS
inspector, told the Portland, Ore., daily The Oregonian. Gordon likened
Bell to convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Unabomber
suspect Theodore Kaczynski. The federal government's court filing against
Bell stated the belief that the defendant had a plan to "overthrow the U.S.
government." Proof of his motivation, the government asserted, was found in
Bell's Internet writings: "Bell has spelled out parts of his overall plan
in his 'Assassination Politics' essay." 

Bell wasn't lacking for firepower. On April 1, 20 armed federal agents
raided Bell's home, where he lived with his parents. According to U.S. News
& World Report ("Terrorism's Next Wave") the feds found three semiautomatic
assault rifles; a handgun; a copy of the book The Terrorist's Handbook; the
home addresses of more than 100 government workers; and a garage full of
potentially deadly chemicals. Authorities had long known that Bell was a
spokesperson for a local libertarian militia and was involved in a
so-called "common-law court" that planned "trials" of IRS employees. 

Given what the feds found at the house, in retrospect the raid seems
prudent-as Leroy Loiselle of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told
U.S. News, "You don't need nitric acid to keep aphids off your flowers."
It's easy to forget the troubling fact that the government's initial reason
for raiding Bell's residence was "Assassination Politics," which they found
in Bell's car when the IRS seized it back in February. (Bell owed some
$30,000 in back taxes.) Will others who make public their wrath for
government and owe some taxes to Uncle Sam be paid similar visits? 

What's perhaps more troubling still is the way the feds held up Bell's
essay as evidence of his violent intent. Reading "Assassination Politics"
makes clear that it is no more a workable blueprint for overthrowing the
government than Frank Herbert's Dune is a realistic plan for urban renewal.
For about two years prior to Bell's arrest, "Assassination Politics"
floated around the Internet. Bell, for instance, sent this essay out on the
cypherpunks mailing list, where scenarios for the future, based on new
technology and libertarian principles, are frequently discussed. None of
the cypherpunks took his "plan" seriously then. 

The core of "Assassination Politics" is a plan to establish an anonymous
electronic market wherein people could "wager" money on when public
individuals, be they world leaders or corrupt tax collectors, will die. A
person (say, for instance, an assassin) who correctly "predicts" the day of
a death could anonymously collect the "winnings." Far from being a direct
call to arms, Bell's essay is largely hypothetical, at least until
encryption, traceless digital cash, and mass homicidal hatred of world
leaders becomes widespread. Ugly yes; realistic no. 

"I've told Jim Bell on any number of occasions that it would never work,"
Robert East, a friend of Bell's, tells me by e-mail. "If Jim had properly
titled this as a fictional piece of literature he'd have been far more

In April, when the Jim Bell story broke, both The Columbian and Time
Warner's Netly News portrayed Bell as a victim whose free-speech rights
were violated. But as evidence against Bell piled up, the sympathy muted
considerably. U.S. News' recent cover story on domestic terrorism,
"Terrorism's Next Wave," opened with the Bell case. 

Perhaps Bell was prosecuted for what he wrote rather than what he might do.
(Both friends and family have repeatedly said Bell, though a big talker,
isn't much of a doer. "Jim is a harmless academic [n]erd," East insists.
"I've known him for years and he's harmless.") Perhaps the IRS was spooked
by little more than idle speculation of its demise. But the evidence seems
to have dealt the feds the better hand, and lends credence to the idea
that, for all the protest of free-speech advocates, words are not always
separable from actions. 

The Baltimore City Paper:                      

City Paper's  Cyberpunk column:


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