ClandesTime 133 – Was the Unabomber Right?

Ted Kaczynski is most famous for both being the most prolific serial bomber in US history and for writing the Unabomber Manifesto – a political-philosophical tract that was published by major newspapers and by the FBI. This week I take a look at the life of Ted Kaczynski and conduct a philosophical analysis of Industrial Society and Its Future. I ask whether Kaczynski’s early life and education – including being subjected to abusive psychological experiments and never being introduced to philosophy – resulted in an unresolved, traumatised mentality that made his life a self-fulfilling prophecy.


I have been fascinated by the Unabomber for a long time. Ted “Theodore” Kaczynski sent numerous letter-bombs between 1978 and 1995, killing three people and injuring a couple of dozen more, some very seriously. To get the obvious out of the way – I am not saying he was right to kill and injure those people. While I’m not one of those people who is fundamentally opposed to politically-motivated violence, or terrorism, I think it should be used against very specific targets. This is why using a suicide bomber to blow up a pop concert or a tube train or a bus doesn’t make much sense – someone willing to kill themselves is a much more powerful and precise weapon than you need in order to do that. You could just leave your backpack bomb on a five-minute timer and walk away. That being said, anyone who is willing to become a suicide bomber is most likely severely depressed or just a lunatic, so applying rationality to their behaviour or alleged behaviour isn’t especially appropriate.

However, whether Kaczynski was crazy is a matter of some dispute. Many contend that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, though it seems this accusation was used as leverage by the Department of Justice to force him to plead guilty, and the fact he was deemed competent enough to enter that plea shows that they didn’t really believe he was insane.

This is all very well laid out in the TV series Manhunt: Unabomber, which I watched recently due to my ongoing interest in Kaczynski. I was expecting a relatively boring FBI procedural, this being the Discovery channel after all, who aren’t known for making high quality scripted dramas. Also, the series was sponsored by the FBI, they had FBI and ex-FBI technical advisors working on it, so I had every reason to dislike Manhunt.

Instead, I loved it. While they are overplaying the relevance of the FBI profiler (who is himself a composite of several people), I found the development of forensic linguistics – analysing the Unabomber’s manifesto and letters to try to figure out who he was – utterly fascinating. I enjoyed Paul Bettany’s performance as Kaczynski, I liked how they didn’t make him the central character and also portrayed him very sympathetically. This is the opposite of how most terrorists are depicted, and though no doubt it helped that Kaczynski was white and intellectually gifted, I think it was brave of the writers to go down that road.

And herein lies an interesting distinction between the FBI in the past and the FBI now, in terms of their influence on entertainment. In the Hoover era there’s no way the FBI would have supported a production that depicted an anarchistic serial bomber in a sympathetic way. These days it seems they’re primarily concerned with their own public image, and as long as the FBI are the good guys and ultimately the heroes who catch the bad guys, they don’t care that much about the rest of the show.

Getting back to the show itself – and for those of you who don’t know this story – Kaczynski was a maths genius, a child prodigy who got into Harvard aged 16. On top of being the youngest kid in the class, and emotionally unprepared for moving away from home into this very new environment, Kaczynski was subject to humiliating psychological experiments. He signed up for a psychological study where participants were told they’d be debating each other on philosophical matters, so they had to write articles outlining their views of the world. These essays were then analysed, and the most promising candidates were selected, but instead of debating each other they were stuck in a chair once a week with a bunch of electrodes monitoring their physiology while someone insulted and mocked them. They used the articles as ammunition, telling Kaczynski and others that their ideas were childish, arrogant and stupid. They even read to the participants forged letters supposedly written by their parents, expressing deep worry and shame about their children. This went on for years – once a week, for years.

The man overseeing this experiment was Henry Murray – a former OSS man who apparently worked on the CIA’s MKULTRA program. He has also reported to have been the supervisor of one Timothy Leary when he was conducting research with LSD and other strongly psychotropic drugs.

Some years later, after a somewhat unsatisfying and brief academic career, Kaczynski began withdrawing from conventional society. In 1972 he moved to Montana and started setting up a self-sufficient life. He was profoundly focused on living a life outside of the modern technocratic urbanity. As were quite a few others at the time – from survivalists to hippies. In 1975 this apparently changed when Ted was hiking to one of his favourite spots, and when he got there he found that someone had ‘put a road right through the middle of it’. He was infuriated at the encroachment of modern society on the wilderness he had fled into, and resolved to strike back at the system rather than simply try to escape it.

In 1978 he started sending and planting bombs, mostly targeting universities and airliners. This led the FBI to call him the University and Airliner Bomber, and the case was codenamed Unabomb (like Tradebom for WTC93, or Kenbom for the ‘98 embassy bombings). Hence, the name ‘the Unabomber’ refers to a government codename for an investigation and attempt to bring down Kaczynski, a moniker I am certain he detests. In the mid 1980s Kaczynski perfected his primitive but clever bomb-building techniques and people started getting seriously injured and killed. After the first death in 1987, Ted stopped sending bombs for 6 years, only starting again in 1993. The reason for this break is the subject of a lot of speculation, but basically no one knows.

In total 16 bombs causing three deaths and 23 injuries are attributed to Kaczynski. However, the FBI concedes that none of the latent fingerprints on the bombs match the fingerprints on the letters also attributed to the Unabomber. It’s also curious that the letters and the manifesto refer to multiple people, some sort of organisation or gang, being behind all this. Also that the bombs and the letters were signed ‘FC’ or ‘Freedom Club’. Nonetheless, as history tells it Kaczynski was a lone serial bomber who basically did all of this himself.

I am not sure what to make of this. On the one hand we have the likes of Ramzi Yousef, who pretended to have an entire terrorist organisation at his command when it was just him and one other guy in a hotel room in Manila. On the other, it is bizarre for someone who apparently believed in individual autonomy, individual freedom, to refer to themself with collective nouns, for them to pretend to be multiple people. That said, Kaczynski did deliberately include contradictory clues so as to waste the FBI’s time, he certainly wasn’t without a sense of humour.

In the mid-1990s, having resumed his bombing campaign, he wrote to major newspapers saying that he would cease his terrorist activities if they published a lengthy article he had written – the so-called Unabomber manifesto. The FBI and DOJ decided to go ahead, in part hoping that someone would recognise the ideas and language in the manifesto and figure out who the Unabomber was. Bear in mind that this is after over 15 years of investigation turning up basically nothing and nobody.

In the end, Kaczynski’s brother turned him in, providing the FBI with numerous private letters from Ted that compared very closely with the Unabomber letters and manifesto, and providing the probable cause to search Ted’s cabin in the woods, where they turned up a load of bomb-making materials and the same sort of typewriter used to send the Unabomber letters. So they arrest Kaczynski, who wants to go to trial so he can use it as a platform for his ideas. The FBI and DOJ wanted to avoid this, so they manipulated the situation so that Kaczynski had to choose between being declared crazy and therefore incompetent to stand trial, or pleading guilty, which is what he did.

Almost all of this is in the Manhunt: Unabomber series, so I do recommend it. They have talked about making a second season set in the same period because you have the World Trade Center bombing, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City and other events that lend themselves to this format. I hope they do, because this first season has shown they are willing to provide a multi-dimensional view of these crimes and these criminals, which is a refreshing change from the binary black and white approach that entertainment so often takes where either the cops or the criminals are glamorous heroes.

The logic of anarchist bombings

While at one point in Manhunt, Kaczynski’s lawyer tells him that he bombed a bunch of innocent people so that a newspaper would publish his writings, and therefore he’s obviously mentally defective, I’m not sure that logic is cast iron. After all, he didn’t make the demand for publication until he’d been sending and planting bombs for 17 years. And after the manifesto was published he didn’t send any more bombs, even though it was over 6 months before the FBI finally caught up with him. Also, he took a six-year hiatus from bombing between 1987 and 1993. So I don’t think he planned to use these bombings to extort space for himself on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York times. That seems like rather a late addition to what was a prolonged campaign of violence.

If we look at the targets he chose – they were all symbolic to some extent. Geneticists, engineering and computer science professors, owners of computer shops, airliners and even an airline president, and a lobbyist for the timber industry. They are all symbols of the ever-increasing, ever-enhancing technocratic society, the never-ending growth of industrial capitalism. To Kaczynski – who is broadly an anarcho-primitivist – all this was accomplished at the cost of massive destruction of the natural world, and systemic violence and oppression of human beings. And I don’t think he’s wrong about that.

So I can see the logic in the bombings, even though I think very few if any of these people deserved to be bombed. The Unabombings served the dual purpose of highlighting the violence inherent in the technocratic, industrial system, and of taking low-intensity revenge against that system. To pretend that someone who thinks like this is a paranoid schizophrenic is, to my mind, a sign of a lack of compassion and a very limited imagination. Our system is incredibly violent in its everyday operations, but most people conveniently ignore that because their attention is rarely drawn to it. Meanwhile, low-level violent crimes are reported as major events, making people think that violence is the product of a certain lunatic, criminal minority, rather than the inevitable by-product of our lifestyles. To re-emphasise: while I disagree with this as a justification for random bombings and I’m not encouraging anyone to start sending letter-bombs, I do think the logic is sound, albeit horrifying.

As an anarchist, and a student of anarchist history, I’ve come across a lot of this stuff. Some anarchists, like Narodnaya Volya, got it together to bomb major government buildings and officials, including the Tsar of Russia. Of course, they were infiltrated by Russian intelligence and it seems that one spymaster was actually working against the Tsarist system, so one wonders whether their ‘success’ was partly a result of that curious and unusual dynamic. But a lot of anarchists are just violent idiots – Auguste Coulon, the police spy who entrapped the Walsall Anarchists, celebrated the bombing of a cow in Belgium. Other anarchists around this time set off bombs in cafes, supposedly to try to disrupt and assault bourgeois society. Well, I’m all in favour of disrupting and assaulting bourgeois society, but I do wish these anarchists would have a bit of decorum and intelligence about it. Rather than blowing up the coffee shops, try hijacking trucks that deliver supplies to Starbucks thus damaging their reputation and forcing their customers to go to smaller businesses for their caffeine fix. Just a thought.

This also brings up the problem of how the distinction between sane and insane is wielded by people and institutions in order to maintain and enhance their power. Those of you who have read Foucault, particularly the book Madness and Civilisation, will be aware of his observations that factories look like schools which also looks like hospitals which also look like prisons. In particular, is a mental hospital a prison, a hospital or a school? It is all three simultaneously. And what does that imply about education, criminality and insanity? It implies that mass education is not primarily motivated by producing intelligent, informed citizens capable of doing the things necessary to make for a better society. It is primarily motivated by producing people who will obey the existing power structures, who will work to maintain them.

In truth, I’m not sure mass education is as effective as religion in this respect, and I’m not sure religion is as effective as blood ties. Back in the days of nomadic and situated tribes the notion of belonging to a specific people was stronger, and provided the social cohesion necessary for us to start developing metallurgy, stonemasonry, maths, philosophy, law and so on. Then, as human populations grew and tribes started inter-marrying, we got city-states, the prototypes for the nation-state. Religion began to replace the ties of blood – the first move to a metaphysical basis for social bonds. Over time religions have changed and adapted, newer ones like Christianity and Islam have risen up, but for at least 3000 years they were the main foundation around which societies united. This allowed for the development of complex mathematics, physics, and of nation-states.

Then we got to the Enlightenment, a term for a period somewhere around the later-middle of the second millenium which isn’t very well defined. Older knowledge was rediscovered, new methods of spreading knowledge became available and these two factors changed everything. Economically it allowed for industrialisation – the biggest economic shift in human history. Politically it gave rise to secular liberalism, secular republicanism, Marxism, socialism and numerous other political philosophies whereby the state was seen as some kind of rational agent, a tool for good. Naturally, out of this grew a kind of society where technology – the most simple and obvious manifestation of human rationality – plays a critical role in much of what we do. Whether capitalist or socialist, liberal or conservative, almost all societies on earth spent the 20th century becoming more technocratic.

However, it also gave rise to anarchism – a political philosophy that defines itself primarily by its opposition to the state. As the state in general has spent the last three centuries growing in size, power and technological capability, so has anarchism. From the earliest days of the internet anarchistic hackers have been using it to explore and discuss state secrets. From the earliest days after the invention of dynamite, anarchists have been using it to blow stuff up. And to be honest, blowing things up and exposing state secrets are both damn good fun, though both can be done in a highly irresponsible way that is ultimately self-defeating. Whether Kaczynski’s bombings were self-defeating, I leave it to you to judge.

The Unabomber Manifesto

In 1995 the FBI published Kaczynski’s article on their website, and it was published by the Washington Post and the New York Times, before being picked up by loads of other outlets. It is widely available online in multiple languages, so if Kaczynski was trying to draw attention to it then he certainly succeeded. It has drawn praise and criticism from various camps, but I don’t intend to get into all that. I want to offer a philosophical analysis.

The general theme of the Unabomber Manifesto is that industrialisation has been a disaster for the human race. However, it begins and continues with a lengthy critique of what Kaczynski’s perceives as ‘leftists’. He bemoans political correctness, which just like today he perceives as a left-wing phenomenon. As I have said before, I consider it to be a centrist liberal and neoliberal phenomenon, and inasmuch as leftists do participate in their forms of political correctness, so do rightists. The hypersensitivity towards using language such as ‘broad’ and ‘dame’ to refer to women is matched only by the hypersensitive overreactions to that hypersensitivity. Kaczynski is 100% guilty of this hypocrisy, and seems totally unaware of it.

But he brings up an interesting point that I’d like to examine:

‘Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American Indians), repellent (homosexuals) or otherwise inferior. The leftists themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with their problems. (We do not mean to suggest that women, Indians, etc. ARE inferior; we are only making a point about leftist psychology.)

Feminists are desperately anxious to prove that women are as strong and as capable as men. Clearly they are nagged by a fear that women may NOT be as strong and as capable as men.’

I think this is often true, that people compensate for fears about their own prejudices by projecting them onto others. Those of you who follow English football may have seen this story earlier in the season about a terrace chant by Manchester United supporters about their striker Romelu Lukaku. The chant involved Lukaku having a big black dick, and some people objected because they felt this was racist. Firstly, no one considers someone telling them they have a big dick to be an insult. It’s always considered a compliment. Secondly, the chant did not say he has a big dick because he’s black, they’re simply noting the conjunction of his blackness and big dickedness.

So, this wasn’t an objection to racism, so much as an objection to the chant making certain people think about things they feel guilty for thinking about. I’m guessing at least some of these people actually deep down quite like thinking about big black dicks, but they don’t want to admit that so they project that insecurity onto others, imply or accuse them of being racist, and the chant got stopped. And since then Lukaku has been in pretty poor form, whereas while the crowd were chanting about his big black dick he was playing very well. I don’t know if those two things are connected.

Returning to the manifesto, time and again Kaczynski illustrates his ideological blind spots – ranting on and on about leftists but never once considering that capitalism and the capitalist culture that commodifies human identity and human rights might have something to do with this behaviour that irks him so greatly. The feelings of inferiority and the oversocialization that he objects to in the opening pages are very much a part of this culture, and while liberals will use progressive rhetoric to make excuses for capitalist culture that doesn’t mean the problem originates with them. Indeed, if you ask most leftists that I know they loathe liberals for running interference for the capitalists, for reducing any rebellion against capitalism to some diluted, progressive reformist agenda. It seems that Kaczynski never encountered this perspective, or if he did he never incorporated it into his own thinking.

Another example that illustrates what I mean:

The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is not the fault of capitalism and it is not the fault of socialism. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity. Of course the system does satisfy many human needs, but generally speaking it does this only to the extend that it is to the advantage of the system to do it. It is the needs of the system  that are paramount, not those of the human being.

Here Kaczynski commits the classic mistake made by so many scientific minds when discussing politics – he blames technology. Because science in the 20th century was largely in the service of developing and producing better technology, they see technology as an end in itself, a thing in itself with some kind of will or agenda. In reality, it’s a bunch of inanimate stuff that we produced for various reasons. Technology, by and large, is morally neutral. You can use a hunting rifle for morally good ends – to get dinner for your family, or to kill your boss – or for morally bad ends, like shooting at trees or murdering schoolchildren. The rifle itself doesn’t give a damn what it is shooting at.

Likewise, despite ranting on and on about how leftists are all collectivists and the importance of individual freedom, Kaczynski also blames ‘the system’. This is perhaps the greatest mistake leftist, particularly Marxist, social critics make. It’s like blaming God, or fate, or the fact that the sky is blue. It’s a generic cop-out, which offers nothing specific enough that we have any hope of solving it. It holds no-one individually responsible, except for maybe everyone all at once. Which is very collectivist. It identifies no specific dynamic within the system that could be disrupted in order to change how the system works or turn it into something new and better.

Something that occurs to me over and over when reading the Unabomber manifesto is that this is someone who – as much as they are a genius in the closed rational system of mathematics – lacks education in the area they seem most interested in, namely philosophy. Kaczynski says that this situation isn’t the fault of capitalism or socialism, but of technology. If he had a proper philosophical and historical education he’d have realised that capitalism predates industrialisation, that industrialisation was embarked upon so quickly and thoroughly largely for capitalistic motives – because it makes production and selling that much more efficient – and that socialism emerged as a response to this. I’m not saying that therefore ‘capitalism is to blame’ as such, merely observing the order of events and how Kaczynski’s lack of a philosophical education is why he keeps making these elementary mistakes.

If anything, this is a tragic story. Ted Kaczynski grew up in a technocratic, capitalistic society where the most efficient place for a boy genius to be is at a university studying mathematics so that one day he can save an airline a lot of money by designing a more efficient wing. He was also subject to crude, psychologically scarring experiments designed to make him feel insecure, inadequate and dependent on the approval and validation of others. Because of this he grows up with a desire for autonomy that can never be fulfilled. I’m not saying this is necessarily what happened, merely that it is one narrative that can be sustained by this sort of reading and interpretation.

One other constant problem throughout the manifesto is Kaczynski’s declarations about autonomy and individual freedom. For a long time I’ve felt these are childish or at least adolescent notions. Humans aren’t empowered by a sense of freedom, they’re empowered by a sense of purpose or of duty or something else that they don’t have a choice over. People with lots of personal freedom and few constricting factors rarely end up excelling at anything. Like I say, look at adolescents. They protest that they can ‘do what they want to’ but they’re slaves to their hormones and they spend a lot of time lounging around watching bad TV, playing video games and not cleaning up after themselves.

Perhaps the best example of this in Kaczynski’s piece is the section titled:

Note again that he’s attributing technology with some kind of will or ability to pursue a set of aims or an agenda. I hate to break this to all those people who like to blame technology but if you leave an iPhone to its own devices all it will do is drain its battery and then turn off. I’m not frightened by teenagers wielding Samsung Galaxies.

Ted goes on to use the example of cars, saying that when they were first introduced they were a tool for greater freedom. No one had to have a car, but anyone who did have one could travel faster and further than anyone could on foot. He goes on:

But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace; one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation.

He makes a case that many people will find persuasive, but not me. I’ve never owned a car, partly because of all this stuff that Kaczynski is talking about that make it seem like a waste of money. Or at least, the extra work I’d have to do to earn the money to pay for all this stuff versus the actual pleasure I’d get out of having a car, given my priorities and ambitions in life, make it seem like the right thing to do, at least for now. I don’t have a lot of choice about most of that, but I’m not butthurt and whinging about it, let alone sending letter bombs.

But more importantly he’s making the simple error of blaming this all on the introduction of a new technology, and then just on the existence of the technology itself. He doesn’t ask ‘why was the technology introduced?’ or ‘why was it adopted en masse so quickly?’ or ‘are there other reasons for all the regulations and additional costs beyond merely the existence of automobiles?’. Why not? Because he has no training in philosophy.

So what Kaczynski failed, horribly and tragically failed, to realise is that humans don’t feel free because they aren’t, and that in many ways that’s a good thing. If you could just choose to stop loving the people you love, that’s not a good way to be. That’s how psychopaths behave. A human with no sense of duty, no moral conscience restricting them and guiding them, is more free than someone with those things. But they are a worse human being for it.

So, he fetishised autonomy but never bothered to define it – like so many people, especially Americans and Western Europeans. He objected to ‘the system’ while largely misidentifying how and why that system did what it did. He attributed to technology a greater autonomy than he did to himself, and thereby became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He projected his internal struggle with himself outwards onto the world, and especially onto technology. His desire for autonomy, to my mind, is a psychological metaphor for his desire to be free from guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy. I have no doubt those feelings were exacerbated by the experiments he was subjected to, and a lack of philosophical education meant that he could never find resolution in not being free from them, he could never conceive of a resolution in simply living with them or even turning them into strengths.

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