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Varieties of Madness

The Unabomber Manifesto

Jolly Roger Press, 90 pp., $9.95 (paper)

A Beautiful Mind

by Sylvia Nasar
Simon and Schuster, 440 pp., $25.00

Drawing Life

by David Gelernter
Free Press, 159 pp., $21.00


In what little we learned of the movements of Theodore Kaczynski before and during the seventeen years of bombings that killed three people and injured twenty-nine and led to the charges on which he will be sentenced in May, there seemed something obstinately, if not recently, familiar, arresting details of place and class and fractured expectations in a curiously earlier American mold, the sketchy outline of a kind of Dreiser character. Here we had the Chicago-born son of the Polish sausagemaker and the mother who dedicated herself to cultivating the apparent early brilliance of her firstborn child: figures from a midwestern Bildungsroman before the world wars. Here we had the sixteen-year-old scholarship student at Harvard (the same novel, at the point in which the yearning son of the prairie West comes up against the lazy entitlement of the East), his cubicle in the service quarters of Eliot House littered with takeout containers of molding coffee while he argued Kant in an all-night cafeteria. Here we had the graduate student at Michigan who worked in a field of calculus so outside the mainstream that he was advised in the interests of a career to abandon it, who stubbornly refused, and who, at the time he received his doctorate and was hired by the mathematics department at Berkeley, was judged by the chairman of that department to be “probably one of the top twenty to twenty-five PhDs out of eight hundred coming out that year.”

In the fall of 1967, Theodore Kazcynski, who appeared into his twenty-fifth year to have remained largely untouched by the diversions and deflections of his own time, arrived at Berkeley as an assistant professor: one of the few, in a famously high-powered department, believed to be on an assured tenure track. Two years later, despite the attempts of the department to keep him, he abruptly left both Berkeley and academic life, a disconnect perhaps less noticeable in the distractions of 1969 in Berkeley (riots on Telegraph Avenue, People’s Park, Ronald Reagan sending in the National Guard) than it might have seemed before or later.

After this unexplained break, not much, not even the retreat into real wilderness that would become the given of his tabloid persona, just a mean sojourn in the raw Western empty. There was the period in Salt Lake when he supported himself doing odd jobs. There was the purchase with his younger brother David of the small Montana plot, not quite an acre and a half four miles outside Lincoln and seven hundred yards from an operating sawmill, from which, as it turned out, he would venture only sporadically for the rest of his life as a free man. There were the bus trips: Lincoln to Helena, Helena to Butte or Missoula for Salt Lake, connect out of Salt Lake for Sacramento or San Francisco. There was the fourteen-dollar-a-night hotel in Helena, the Park. There was the transient hotel near the Greyhound bus station in Sacramento, the Royal, $31.90 a night and the keys on the wall behind the night clerk. There was the Burger King near the Royal. In Helena he was remembered to have bought and sold used books at a local shop, Aunt Bonnie’s. In Sacramento he was remembered by the clerks at Tower Books, twenty blocks from the bus station. The clerks referred to him as “Einstein.”

His “manifesto,” the typewritten thirty-five-thousand-word manuscript mailed in June of 1995 to The New York Times and The Washington Post, told us more. On the strength of the writer’s promise to “desist from all terrorist activities” if either paper ran the full text within three months, the manifesto was published, in September of 1995, by both papers, and a month later by a small Berkeley publisher who immediately moved a five-thousand-copy first printing onto the San Francisco Chronicle‘s bestseller list. Until the publication of the manifesto, there had been only a few things about the writer we knew, or thought we knew. The pattern of the bombs and their postmarks had suggested familiarity with northern California; an earlier communiqué had even mentioned testing devices in “the sierras,” which was not common usage in the country at large but was how people in and around Sacramento refer to the Sierra Nevada.

The targets themselves (academics in the sciences, computer experts, lobbyists for the logging industry, described rather opaquely in the press as “forestry officials”) had strongly suggested someone bent on taking to its diehard conclusion a kind of romantic environmentalism that had flourished in northern California during the late 1960s and the 1970s, so much so that during the summer of 1995, when newspapers were reporting the general argument of the manifesto but the full text had not yet been published, many of us erroneously took for granted that the bomber, when found, would turn out to be a dug-in survivor of one or another of the radical underground groups which had operated in the north coast and central counties during those years.

At first glance, the manifesto, which was called Industrial Society and Its Future, seemed to support some such notion. On the Chronicle‘s bestseller list, the manifesto was slugged “Terrorist tract, unedited and unexpurgated,” but there was little in its general thesis that did not echo the apprehension of technology as a double-edged sword that pervaded a good deal of nineteenth-century social thinking. Its central argument, that the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, even as they have “greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries,” have also “destabilized society,” “made life unfulfilling,” “subjected human beings to indignities,” “led to widespread psychological suffering,” and “inflicted severe damage on the natural world,” was by 1995 unexceptionable, arguable only to the extent that the reader might place a greater or lesser worth on increased life expectancy.

To read much of this logically reasoned if somewhat hermetic document (which, like the Unabomber’s previous communiqués, purported to be the product of an unknown underground group, “FC,” for “Freedom Club”) was in fact to be lulled into an impression that what changes the writer or writers had in mind could occur in a kind of geologic time, history’s great clock moving into another inexorable correction. A “revolution against the industrial system” was definitely advocated, but it need be neither violent (“This revolution may or may not make use of violence”) nor immediate: “It may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can’t predict any of that.”

The writer seemed modest to a fault, apologetic about his inadequate ability not only to predict all outcomes but to explain all terms, weave together all threads. Again and again, he did “not pretend” to offer “an accurate description,” only “a rough indication.” Consistently, he acknowledged the “many objections” that could be raised. Repeatedly, he fretted that the principles he presented were “expressed in imprecise language.” He ventured to present them at all “not as inviolable laws but as rules of thumb, or guides to thinking.” He recognized that his discussion had “a serious weakness,” regretted that it must remain “far from clear.” “Throughout this article,” he concluded,

…we’ve made imprecise statements and statements that ought to have had all sorts of qualifications and reservations attached to them; and some of our statements may be flatly false…. In a discussion of this kind one must rely heavily on intuitive judgment, and that can sometimes be wrong…. We don’t claim that this article expresses more than a crude approximation to the truth….

The question of whether or not Theodore Kaczynski was guilty of the acts for which he was charged or of which he was suspected became moot in January, when, having been judged legally competent to stand trial, he pled guilty in federal court in Sacramento to charges related to five bombings and admitted to the remaining eleven. The question of whether or not he was also mad, which came to dominate not only the aborted trial but a good deal of low-wattage attitudinizing in what passed for the national discourse, was dismissed by David Gelernter, the associate professor of computer science at Yale who in 1993 was severely injured and permanently maimed by one of the bombs and who by virtue of this event became a reliable quote on the subject, as a kind of speculation that could derive only from “our ‘don’t be judgmental’ perversity,” our “morally disastrous unwillingness to draw a sharp, hard line between good and evil,” in other words, our “moral depravity.”

This was interesting. The Unabomber, while we watched, had become a marker on the front lines of the culture wars, a convenient focus for woolly discontents about the criminal justice system and contemporary life in general, particularly that aspect of it repeatedly referred to on talk radio as “this anything-goes morality.” “The twentieth century is the crime scene,” Gelernter declared, and the blast that injured him had been “a reenactment of a far bigger one a generation earlier, which destroyed something basic in this society that has yet to be repaired.” The “tendency among some intellectuals and journalists to dignify with analysis the thinking of violent criminals has always struck me as low and contemptible,” he wrote in Time, apparently geared up by the crusade to pretty much jettison that part of the canon that had taken as its subject the mysteries of crime and punishment. To call the Unabomber mad, as Time had done when it referred to Kaczynski as a “mad genius,” Gelernter wrote in Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, “went beyond funny and obnoxious into the realm of evil.”

Yet no one could have read the full text of the manifesto without witnessing a mind spiking past the point of no return. There was the document’s tabula rasa aspect, as if the writer had been tuning into the arguments of the past quarter century via shortwave and working obsessively to shape this garbled transmission to his thesis. There were the usual straw men, but they were lined up wrong. There were the familiar phrases, but to a different point. It had been generally assumed that someone who sent bombs to advance an aim most often described as “neo-Luddite” would share certain views with either the radical left or the radical right, but the author of this document, its full text made clear, shared views with neither, or both, or with no one at all.

The conservatives are fools,” he advised us. “They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.” If he held “the conservatives” in contempt, he also despised “leftists,” by which he meant “mainly socialists, collectivists, ‘politically correct’ types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like,” an assortment he collectively dismissed as “one of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world.” Leftists, he wrote, as if his shortwave had been picking up transmissions from the Heritage Foundation,

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