A WEAK detonator was all that saved the Internal Revenue Service building in Reno, Nev., from being rocked by a powerful explosion on the morning of Dec. 18, 1995.
The night before, two men with liens pending against them for unpaid taxes allegedly wheeled a 30-gallon white plastic drum packed with 100 pounds of explosives into the building's parking lot. A fuse had been lit, but the blasting cap fizzled. The two men are now up for trial.
In Muskogee, Okla., an early arrest was all that saved a number of gay bars, civil-rights centers and abortion clinics from being blown up. According to the FBI, Willie Ray Lampley, 65, was assembling bomb-making materials similar to the ones used in the Oklahoma City bombing when he was arrested in November. Lampley's trial is under way.
For Guo Qiang Situ, a Chinese immigrant living in Miami, it was too late. As he was walking home one night in early February, Guo, 40, crossed a trip wire, igniting a bomb that killed him on the spot.
Guo was apparently the victim of what Miami law-enforcement officials are calling a "random bombing." No suspects have been arrested.
Across the country, the incidence of criminal bombings and bombing attempts is sharply rising. The number of bombings in the United States has almost tripled, growing from 1,181 incidents in 1986 to 3,163 in 1994, according to data compiled by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). In 1994, the last year with complete figures, these bombings caused $7.5 million worth of damage, injured 308 people and killed 31.
Although the bombing figures for 1995 have yet to be compiled, federal officials expect the growing trend to continue. "I'm sure we're going to see a marked increase in '95, not even including Oklahoma City," said J.D. Powell, an explosion enforcement officer with the ATF.
For law-enforcement officials and experts on crime, the growing use of explosives in American society is both alarming and baffling.
"I think that it's an issue of the information of how to make a bomb being more readily available and a change in psychology," said Alan A. Stone, a professor of psychiatry and law at Harvard University. According to Stone, the typical bomber's isolation and paranoia is what eventually justifies his use of explosives.
Recent raids against anti-government militia groups in Georgia, Arizona and Washington, which yielded vast caches of explosives and weapons being prepared for use against government targets, are examples of the growth of such isolation and paranoia.
So is last year's Oklahoma City bombing, and possibly the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta. But law-enforcement officials are quick to point out that this trend is not just being fueled by mad, paranoid bombers, but also by more common criminals, and even drug-traffickers.
"I think it runs the gamut from people who are anti-government to people who act on their own accord and have a personal vendetta," said Bill Albright, acting chief of the ATF's arson and explosives division.
According to the ATF's 1994 arson and explosive incidence report, the top motive behind bombing attacks was not a hate of the government, but revenge. The second most common motive was another perennial: vandalism.
In a sense, some experts say explosives are now becoming as much a part of the criminal landscape as guns. "It's become popularized to the level that now you don't only shoot people, you blow them up," said Professor Victor Le Vine, a specialist in terrorism and history at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's no longer a weapon of mass destruction, but one of mass use."
One of the reasons for this, says Le Vine, is the ease of obtaining bomb-making materials. "If you have a technology that is readily available and low-cost, people will gravitate to it," he said. "It's much like the gun, which today has become innocuous, so to speak."
Besides being readily obtained, the ingredients for making a bomb are, for the most part, all legal. The devastating bomb used in Oklahoma City, for example, was built out of a combination of fertilizer and diesel fuel, materials found on nearly any farm in the United States.
"The thing with explosives is that you can go into anyone's home - don't care if it's a town home or in the country - and you can come out with enough material to build a bomb," said the ATF's Powell. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to do this."
The ease of obtaining explosives materials makes tracking the bomb makers harder, officials say.
"Our licensing procedures for people to sell explosive devices and our licensing procedures for people to buy explosive devices and materials is absolutely nothing," said Ronald Noble, a professor at New York University's law school and former undersecretary of the Treasury Department, which is in charge of the ATF. "I don't think there's a Brady check for explosives." The Brady bill requires a mandatory waiting period for buying guns.
(Congress and the White House are reconsidering an amendment to pending counterterrorism legislation that would require manufacturers of explosive materials to include traceable microscopic pieces of colored plastic, called taggants, in their products as a way to track bombers. The National Rifle Association opposes the amendment, saying the taggants make gunpowder unstable.)
Printed manuals on how to build a bomb, such as the infamous "Anarchist Cookbook," have been around for decades, but some officials say that the availability of bomb-making information on the Internet represents a new and profound danger.
Internet and Web surfers, for example, can join in an "explosives" newsgroup where recipes for different bombs are shared, or can even download a copy of the "Terrorist's Handbook," which provides information on how to build everything from a Molotov cocktail to a bomb that could level, say, a federal building.
Yigal Schleifer is a writer in New York whose work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Forward and the New York Post.