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.

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.

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, New Zealand, Security


Rob O'Neill is a writer for CBS Interactive based in Auckland, New Zealand covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet. He has previously worked for IDG, The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age as well as various business titles, most recently editing the Business Sunday section of New Zealand's weekly national news... Full Bio

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