This would have been a great topic for Banned Books Week, but, alas, I’ve had a long, sad year with a variety of responsibilities I haven’t wanted to work through. But now is as good a time as any to talk about the extent of free speech and the free press, isn’t it?
A 1983 book called Hit Man by Rex Feral purports to be a manual for contract killers with practical instructions on how to eliminate your targets without getting caught. The author says it is for entertainment purposes only, and you can see from GoodReads many contemporary readers think the book is too simple, dated, and even silly.
But things have changed a bit over 35 years.
In 1993 James Perry snuck into a Maryland home and murdered a disabled eight-year-old, his nurse, and his mother, following many of the details recommended in this book. A podcast from iHeart Radio and Hit Home Media, also called Hit Man, opens with an exploration of this murder and the man who hired Perry to carry it out. Later the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against the publisher, claiming the book was intended to be real-world advice that could be acted upon by anyone wanting to murder someone for a fee, and in doing so the publisher aided and abetted in murder.
The publisher argued that it did not intend for anyone to murder or be murdered based on what they read and that it has the freedom to publish whatever it wants.
In a style that may be a bit over-earnest, Hit Man the podcast tells the stories of the murder, this lawsuit, other crimes connected to the book, the identity of the pseudonymous author, and the possible inspiration for the book.
Should our country allow a book like this (and others like it which are still in print)? Is this the kind of abhorrent speech we say we would argue against but fight for the rights of others to use? You would need to know what’s in the book to make that decision; the podcast offers some details, and you can read the whole book by searching for the text file. It’s possible it doesn’t say anymore about pulling off contract killing than many other books, fiction and non.
The bulk of the legal argument against it was about intent. Is the book what it claims to be, “a technical manual for independent contractors,” or is it an imaginative book on crime? I think there should be a line that we don’t cross, but ours is a society originally suited for a religious people who actively submit to the governor of the universe, so that line will have to be a moral one. If we live with a morality that is only defined by the law, then we will not live happily for long.
Hit Man is a real banned book, by the way, so I hope it makes the big list one of these years.