Art and anarchy: understanding a computer center suicide bombing

Art and anarchy: understanding a computer center suicide bombing

Summary: A new exhibition explores the meanings of the 1982 suicide bombing at the Wanganui Computer Centre in New Zealand.

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Just after midnight, Neil Roberts painted a quote on the wall of a toilet block: “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.” He also painted an anarchist symbol and the words “peace thinking”.

Roberts then walked towards the Computer Centre that stored criminal and justice information for use by New Zealand law enforcement agencies.

NeilRoberts
Neil Roberts

One of two security guards inside the foyer of the centre saw him coming and reached for the intercom. He saw Roberts bend down as if to tie his shoes.

It was 12.35am.

A deafening roar and a flash followed as six sticks of gelignite in a red hold-all Roberts was carrying exploded. The security guards were blown off their feet but uninjured. The entrance foyer was wrecked.

At the age of 22, Roberts was gone, but the Sperry Univac 1000 computers inside kept humming.

Up to 150 people worked at the Wanganui Computer Centre, but there were only seven on duty at that time of the morning on 18 November 1982. They were evacuated through the back of the building away from the gory scene in front.

Superintendent B. K. Dean said he had never before seen a body so mangled.

“They will be finding bits of him for days,” he said.

A piece of Roberts’ chest was found bearing the tattoo “This punk won’t see 23, no future”. Having identified his remains through fingerprint records, the Police concluded the “anti-establishment” anarchist punk, with razor blades hanging from his ears, had acted alone.

Roberts’ gesture has been commemorated by anarchists and punks each November 18. In 1984 a short art film was made.  But after over thirty years, memories of New Zealand’s only suicide bombing are fading. Many don’t even know it happened.

However, after the Edward Snowden’s leaks and the discovery of illegal surveillance in New Zealand, carried out on behalf of US agencies targeting Mega Upload founder Kim Dotcom, the event appears to have acquired renewed significance.

Roberts even has a commemorative Facebook page.

Roberts’ has been characterised variously as a sorry misfit, New Zealand’s Guy Fawkes and more latterly as a terrorist.

Police favoured the sorry misfit line.

“He had long held antisocial attitudes and was inclined to protests of various kinds,” Detective Senior-Sergeant R L Butler told the press.

“From what we have learned about him, he intended to kill himself. He had become obsessed with committing this last, final, act.”

Those who knew him, though, insisted Roberts was protesting against the Computer Centre because he saw it as a threat to freedom. For Roberts and others, the Wanganui Computer Centre was a symbol of Big Brother.

The government of the day had misused surveillance information before, during anti-apartheid protests the previous year. Roberts was a protestor and a punk and in both groups anti-police sentiment was high.

In 1977 a new law was passed bolstering the powers of the Security Intelligence Service, New Zealand’s spy agency.  Around the same time, the Wanganui Computer Act was passed into law enabling the Centre to be commissioned.

Then Minister of Police Alan McCready said the Centre was “probably the most significant crime-fighting weapon ever brought to bear against lawlessness in this country.”

One who knew Roberts, a then 18-year-old Bronwyn Dutton, said as soon as she heard about the bombing she knew it was him.

“He hated the Computer Centre probably more than anyone,” she said, characterising the bomber as “very gentle, calm, pretty intelligent”.

Topics: Data Centers, Privacy, New Zealand, Disaster Recovery

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5 comments
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  • Waiting for your sympathetic article on

    Timothy Mcveigh, nobly avenging the death of those murdered by government tyranny at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Because, after all, if the cause is right, terrorist bombings are heroic, right?
    baggins_z
    • Why...

      Why do I suspect that you've written sympathetic pieces on McVeigh?
      dsf3g
      • Thanks for proving my point.

        McVeigh is a monster because we agree with what the government did, the Unabomber is a hero, because we hate evil corporations.

        The reality is, both are murdering terrorists.
        baggins_z
  • Just another nut case

    I am always amazed at the egos of people like Roberts. Who do they think they are to believe that they, and only they, are empowered to do whatever is necessary to bring society into line with their world-view. Not like millions of other people shouldn't get a say.

    Now he's some kind of hero? He's a loser who was willing to kill everyone in that facility. People who had families; people who were someone's sons and daughters. By all accounts he failed at that only because it seems like he detonated prematurely.

    Before the hug-a-thug groupies go out a put flowers on his grave for being some kind of anti-establishment hero, we might want to consider that guys like Roberts are swimming in a sea of their own hypocrisy. Our government has checks and balances, and at the end of the day governments fall, new people run for office, etc. It doesn't work perfectly, or even properly, but it was designed by people, for people.

    Contrast that to our urban hero Roberts. Judge, jury, and executioner. Because he knows the one true path. He is self-empowered. He is a visionary. Only he is best suited to decide. Forget everyone else. In reality at best he's a nut job, and at worst he's no better than the most corrupt government official.

    And that's the real issue. If we think we should be striving for anything, it should be for something better. To think that swapping the self-righteousness of a politician for the self-righteousness of some pimple-faced kid makes any difference at all is insane.
    ITTech001
    • Hug a thug.

      Brilliant. Officially stealing this.
      baggins_z