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Unabomber: Based on a true story?

Perhaps it was disaster (of which there is never shortage) fatigue*, but the Unabomber story escaped my attention, in what may loosely called ‘real time’. I must have recognized this lapse when I chose to read Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Unibomber: The Education of An American Terrorist, which revisitsx’s story. You know,  the terrorist who in 1978 began a campaign of bombing that the FBI spent 17 years tracking down. Need I point out that it is a very interesting story…Here’s a Publisher’s Weekly review:

This is a radically new interpretation of the life and motives of the infamous Unabomber. Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder. Through Chase’s compelling narration of the planning and execution of Kaczynski’s crimes, we come to know a thoroughly cold-blooded killer, but one whose ideas were uncannily close to those of mainstream America. Originally published in hardcover as Harvard and the Unabomber.

And now comes a documentary drama (based on a true story?), Manhunt, which retells the FBI’s lengthy investigation from the perspective of the profiler who successfully narrowed down the suspect pool, ultimately to Kaczynski which led his to capture and arrest. So the question arises, are we getting an accurate picture of this brilliant mind who saw fit to mangle and kill in pursuit of abhorrence of modern life and technology**

Interestingly, the soft cover edition of Chase’s tome elides mention of the greatest university in the world and is now entitled A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism. Apparently Harvard was not pleased with the attention paid to the psyche experiments conducted by Henry Murray (which mimicked questionable CIA tests, possibly using Lysergic acid diethylamide). Perhaps there is some liability here?

I have spoken with Alston Chase—here’s a sample:***

AC: before Kaczynski was known, when the [Unabomber] Manifesto came out, I was approached by a former editor friend of mine who was by that time chief story editor for Diane Sawyer on ABC Prime Time. The FBI had just come out with a profile, and the ABC people asked me to give my own analysis. And I came up with a very, very different one. The FBI suggested this person was in his ’40s. I suggested, no, he was older because the Manifesto was right out of Gen Ed of the 1950’s. And they said he was probably an academic, and I said that he was an academe long enough to learn that he hated it. And wrote too well to be an academic. So I gave a different interpretation, and it turned out to be pretty accurate. RB: What was the FBI response? AC: Of course they weren’t listening to me. And the problems of the FBI— and I point this out in my book— is that they have all of these psychologists doing psychological profiles but what they needed was forensic academicians.


RB: You suggest that Kaczynski’s thinking—which you characterize as mediocre—is not particularly original. AC: The Manifesto is a kind of compendium of cliches. RB: It does espouse values and does suggest concepts and sentiments that are rife in this country. Why aren’t there more Kaczynski’s. Or there will be more?

Alston Chase (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

AC: There will be. We come back to the fact that this intellectual crisis that I mention is still with us. And one way it’s manifested itself is in a global culture of despair and anti-modernism. A profound reaction against everything modern, not simply by the Kaczynskis of the world but the bin Ladens, who would like to return the Middle East to some theocratic state at the time of Saladin, but in addition in Europe as in its ban on genetically engineered crops. That’s anti-modernism. Now it’s true that the European Union may be doing this because it’s a convenient way to impose tariffs and be protectionist with out appearing to be protectionist. On the other had the EU couldn’t get away with it if there weren’t just widespread popular support among the people in Europe. The anti-globalization movement and environmentalism in some of its stripes are all examples of this anti-modernism and there are a certain percentage of these people that are willing to commit violent acts in the name of rolling the technology back. As I looked at Kaczynski and his thinking, what I saw was this pattern that seemed strikingly similar of that of terrorists—virtually every form from the KKK to bin Laden. And one has this very historical sense, the sense that they see themselves as players in history. The sense that they are attempting to right wrongs they believed were committed long ago. Bin Laden wants to roll back the Crusades. The KKK would like to fight the Civil War again. So you have these elephantine memories of these imagined injustices. And then anti-modernism and that goes for the right-wing survivalist militia men, the Earth First environmentalists, the anti-globalization people are in to that as are the Islamic fundamentalists. So it’s a really a worldwide movement. And with the increase in communication the divisions that existed in the past between domestic and international terrorism are going to disappear.

The portrayal of the FBI investigation in Manhunt reveals, not surprisingly, intense careerism, hierarchical arrogance and what is surprising, great sympathy for Kaczynski and the neophyte profiler who in way of may good police gives up everything to solve this case. And is given no credit for his work…


*wars in Central America, the former Yugoslavia, AIDS epidemic, genocides in Africa,..

**The Unibomber Manifesto

*** Identity theory Interview with Alston Chase