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Publish or Perish 

Wednesday, Aug 9 1995
Over the last 17 years, the Unabomber has deployed 16 bombs in a pyrolytic barrage, rendering this gore box-score: 23 injured, three killed, millions terrified.

His slaughter began modestly: The first device (May 25, 1978) mangled the hand of a campus cop; a couple of years later a bomb stowed in an airborne mailbag exploded, panicking the crew and passengers of American Airlines Flight 444 and requiring 12 to be treated for smoke inhalation; another lacerated the right eye, deafened, and additionally mutilated a brilliant computer scientist at Yale; at UC Berkeley, a booby-trap special ripped five fingers from an aspiring astronaut; another package-that-exploded broke the arm, pulped the hand, and rearranged the guts of a UCSF geneticist.

And the fatal home runs: A 1985 Unabomb shrapneled and decanted the lifeblood of a computer store owner. An April '95 mail-bomb packed such overkill that it shredded a timber lobbyist and his office. And an advertising executive lost his face and life in December '94 when he opened a videotape-size package from the Bay Area bomber who calls his imagined collective "FC."

Police and press have scoured the Unabomber's crime sites -- and now his 35,000-word free-lance submission to the New York Times and Washington Post (no jokes about kill fees, please) -- for clues to his identity.

Why does he bomb? What will make him stop?
The Unabomber's blackmail is simple: He says he'll cease the terror when the Times or Post or some other reputable publication prints his dissertation ("Industrial Society and Its Future") and promises to run future dispatches.

That's nonsense, of course. The demand should be refused outright because printing his words won't stop the Unabomber. His campaign isn't retaliatory; it's a declaration of his (and his imagined collective's) superiority to both the common man and the elite, and nothing short of capture will stop him. The Unabomber, you see, is our modern-day Raskolnikov.

Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevski's 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, seethes with the nihilistic, anarchistic, and Hegelian notions popular at the time. A starving student and impassioned essayist (sound familiar?), Raskolnikov is possessed by the romantic notion that only ordinary men need obey the law. Extraordinary men -- like himself and Napoleon and Kepler and others who project civilization to greater levels -- are superior to the rules of man. Putting his theory into action by ax-murdering a pawnbroker (and, by happenstance, her stepsister), Raskolnikov convinces himself that his crime is not only sanctioned by a higher order but is also a supreme act of conscience.

The Raskolnikov/Unabomber analogy isn't perfect. Raskolnikov spills blood only once, while the Unabomber is a repeat customer and, from the sound of his letters, very satisfied. But the art of Dostoevski's novel helps illustrate the so-called life of the man who is holding us hostage.

The Unabomber, like Raskolnikov, attaches ideas to acts and calls it philosophy. He believes that mashing the living tissue of strangers with white-hot shrapnel is an act of conscience that will rescue society from ecodestruction, an idea he probably acquired, Raskolnikov-like, in his mid-20s. Raskolnikov propounds the extraordinary-man theory prior to the murders, publishing an article about how certain people have the "perfect right" to commit atrocities. But he doesn't fully develop his thesis until after the murders, awaking from a psychotrance induced by the heinous act. Ravenously consuming the newspaper coverage of his crime, Raskolnikov retrofits his theories to the act, maintaining that the killings were a boon to mankind.

It took the Unabomber 17 incendiary years to cough up an equally loony reason for his blood sport. Was he suffering writer's block? Was he burnishing his post-industrial, back-to-nature ecological theory to perfection? Or did his lust for wanton technomurder precede his ecophilosophy, requiring him -- like Raskolnikov -- to conjure an ex post facto justification? (Academics who speak admiringly about the Unabomber's thesis on alienation and conformity fail to acknowledge that his prescription all but dictates the pruning of 95 percent of the world's human population. This solution makes his murderous rampage against innocent people sound compassionate by comparison.)

The Unabomber may be a slow learner when it comes to political philosophy, but he's a prodigy of bomb design (authorities say his devices are of his own invention). From his original pipe bombs fueled by gunpowder and match heads and triggered by rubber-band/wooden-dowel detonators, he is now fashioning ultralight devices with electric detonators that spark an ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder mixture into deadly fulmination. With clean-room perfection, he laboriously assembles the killing tools that are free of identifying fingerprints, hair, blood, or semen. Forensic scientists have even performed DNA analysis of his postage stamps for traces of saliva but failed to detect any. He's careful. He's obsessive. He's demented.

But for the Unabomber, learning to design and build bombs is far easier than developing a moral sense. He proves this in a June letter to the New York Times, in which he belatedly admits that targeting that American Airlines jet 16 years ago was a mistake! Such revisionism is enough to make Raskolnikov blush. The Unabomber writes:

In one case we attempted unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner. The idea was to kill a lot of business people who we assumed would constitute the majority of the passengers.

But of course some of the passengers likely would have been innocent people -- maybe kids, or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We're glad now that that attempt failed.

We don't think it is necessary for us to do any public soul-searching in this letter.

But we will say that we are not insensitive to the pain caused by our bombings.

We feel your pain, too, Una. But only when it blows up in our face.
He continues: "[W]hen we were young and comparatively reckless we were much more careless in selecting targets than we are now." That's rich. After taking his bomb-athon to eight states and striking only four of his intended targets, he now promises greater accuracy.

Having perfected his killing machines if not his rhetoric, the Unabomber still taunts the survivors of his previous bombs with new menacing notes; disrupts West Coast air traffic with an idle threat about taking an airliner out of the sky; conducts an embarrassing public correspondence with Penthouse's jewelry-impaired owner; pesters the Times and Post for their imprimatur; includes the San Francisco Examiner in his malignant prank by claiming that he wrote Will Hearst back in 1985 and asks now why he never responded.

But give him this much: The Unabomber shares much with his fictional counterpart, having freed himself from the ordinariness that is at the stunted roots of his psychology. An intrigued national audience reads his views, and the FBI has forwarded his manuscript to 50 members of the professoriate for their examination, which means that it's only a matter of time before somebody flings the dissertation onto the Internet. The 11 o'clock news belongs to him, as does Page 1. And he can gloat eight days a week about having impaled the New York Times and Washington Post on the horns of his dilemma: Should they publish more than excerpts of his masterwork in hopes that it will diffuse his frustration, or will further publication only encourage him to escalate his demands?

Like the Unabomber, whose communiques confess the crime but proclaim innocence because he is serving a higher power, Raskolnikov engages the police in an enormous psychological game. His philosophy holds that even the extraordinary sometimes suffer for their crimes, a sentiment the Unabomber must share, but by story's end, Dostoevski's character understands that his suffering -- vivid and intense -- is derived from the realization that he is not the extraordinary man he imagines. He's just another schlump whose salvation depends on re-embracing life and confessing his crimes, not to mention accepting a lengthy prison sentence. Raskolnikov confesses because he wants his humanity back, because he aches to re-establish his connection with his fellow man. It's an uplifting if creepy conclusion.

Imagine how the Unabomber lives: in secret, wiping his fingerprints from every conceivable surface; law-abiding to the nth degree to evade the fatal scrutiny of the police; without a car (can't afford the risk of getting pulled over); without friends (can't let them see the shop of horrors); without the infernal conveniences of life (must be consistent to the manifesto!); without restful sleep (sweaty dreams of chase and escape); without love (can't trust anyone).

His crimes have freed him from ordinariness, but what will free him from his crimes?

The Unabomber's crime is his punishment.

About The Author

Jack Shafer


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