Message from a Bomber

11/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people." This is not the usual way to break into the pages of the New York Times, but then this writer was exceptional: the terrorist called "Unabomber" by the FBI, whose meticulously hand-made bombs had killed three people and injured 22 over the previous eighteen years. Writing as the spokesman of a shadowy "Freedom Club," he was promising to give up his campaign if the Times and the Washington Post agreed to publish his 35,000-word opinion piece. It was not a request that editors could easily refuse. On this day in 1995, Industrial Society and its Future appeared in both papers; it did signal the end of the explosions, but not in the way the bomber expected.

It is, as he described it, a "sober essay," laying out in formal terms an argument about technology's innate tendency to restrict human freedom. Through 232 numbered paragraphs and one diagram, the writer outlines the pernicious effects of industrial society on the individual, disrupting the connection between personal goals and effort and promoting a "sense of purposelessness" that people can only relieve by deforming their personalities, creating a range of social ills from "excessive pleasure-seeking" to guilt and low self-esteem. It reads like a senior dissertation by someone at a major university, not -- as it was -- the work of a wild, unwashed man living in a 9 by 12-foot shack in the Montana mountains. It was this fastidious style that betrayed the bomber when his brother recognized its quirks and quibbles and led the authorities to the door of Ted Kaczynski.

Kaczynski clearly was -- is -- a man with strongly autistic characteristics. From early youth, he found noise unbearable, hated social occasions, retreated to his room for weeks, and responded to enquiries either by silence or by abrupt, often cutting, remarks. His parents, children of Polish immigrants, were devoted and attentive to their children, involving them in their own passionate commitment to further education, politics, and love of the outdoors. In Kaczynski's brother David, all these fit well together, producing a man with an unusually warm and rounded character. In Ted, they remained walled off from each other in separate compartments. For a time, his obsession was mathematics: he went to Harvard at 16, published original work while a graduate student, and became a tenure-track professor at Berkeley by 26 -- then suddenly left and went off to live in the woods. Even the limited social life of a math department was too much for him.

Some admirers have cast Kaczynski as an eco-anarchist, fighting to protect a lovely and nurturing nature. This seems a romantic fiction: what he sought in the mountains was not nature's aesthetic bounty but its essential indifference. It allowed him to follow his obsessions (finding wild food, tinkering with handmade weapons) without interference. It rewarded or punished his efforts in an entirely impersonal way. Yet the general quiet of Montana only amplified his anger at intrusion. When a road appeared through virgin forest, when airliners flew overhead at night, they became impossible to ignore. Industrial society changed from being the hum outside the window to the fly in the room.

"We are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not." One compartment in Kaczynski's mind contained a desire for personal vengeance against individuals, often for perceived slights of which they were unaware. Over time, this evolved into a grievance against the promoters and inventors of world that would not leave him alone: computer scientists; social psychologists; PR, airline, and logging executives. His cabin became a wooden box filled with destructive intent, echoed in the explosive boxes he sent and left around the country.

There was a certain comfort in seeing Kaczynski's mug shot: if anyone fitted the stock image of a mad bomber, he did; but some ideas in his manifesto are not so easily dismissed. Even those he loathed as "computer nerds," such as Ray Kurzweil, find his claim that we are becoming the "domestic animals" of our own technology disturbingly likely. You don't have to be an autist to see how systems smooth out behavior, increasingly requiring of the public little more than to consume and obey.

Ted Kaczynski will spend the rest of his life in the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: a vast concrete bunker where the inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary. His freedom has been taken from him completely, but, oddly, so has his most intense grievance: Florence is very, very quiet.

If you enjoy such tales of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day on my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.