What We’re Still Getting Wrong About the Unabomber

What We’re Still Getting Wrong About the Unabomber

What We’re Still Getting Wrong About the Unabomber

Ted Kaczynski’s violence—reexamined in a new biopic—fascinates US audiences, but not for the reasons we think.


In 1995, The Washington Post published a 35,000-word manifesto in a bid to prevent the detonation of a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport and end the FBI’s most expensive manhunt to date. The text, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” was penned by Theodore Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated mathematician living off the grid in in Lincoln, Mont., killed three people and injured 23 more with bombs that he constructed in his cabin and sent through the mail. He was known to the public as the Unabomber in reference to his targets, which were almost exclusively universities and airports.

It is uncomfortable to admit that the manifesto, while the product of a morally unjustifiable actor, is not the ranting of a lunatic. Violence doesn’t need to be justifiable to be comprehensible. As citizens of an imperial power, we are in fact quite good at understanding and even justifying violence—in the name of progress, democracy, economic stability, the rights of women—so perhaps we should be a bit more curious about the function of our parallel and ghoulish obsession with the supposedly inexplicable violence of psychologically aberrant individuals. While Kaczynski was certainly disturbed, repeated popular attempts to “understand” his individual problems (there have been four feature-length films and two Netflix series since his capture, not to mention innumerable plot arcs organized around similar characters) seem more like anxious efforts to ignore something else.

Like all manifestos, “The Industrial Society” is extreme, unspecific, and problematic, but it contains remarkable moments of cogency. Its popularity with anarchists, radical environmentalists, and other black-bloc types makes sense. Its opening lines are not out of place 27 years on:

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.

In 2018, we learned that a company called Cambridge Analytica had partnered with Facebook to collect data and build profiles of non-consenting users. This had been going on for the better part of a decade. Governments launched inquiries; the cofounder of WhatsApp announced support for a boycott of its parent company. The public at large performed shock appropriate to the scale of the scandal, but the collective indignation was perfunctory. Despite these damning revelations, the suggestion that technological progress has its own internal logic, that surveillance is an internal tendency rather than an externality, is typically met with accusations of Luddism or dismissed as mere moral panic. The drumbeat on the left, at least since Lenin praised Frederick Winslow Taylor for his scientific management, has been that it is capitalism, not technology, that is the problem. This is certainly true to some extent, but the corollary—that the technology of capitalism can and will be used differently under socialism or whatever other alternatives may come into being—obstructs vital critical approaches to an apparatus that increasingly incorporates and organizes all aspects of our lives. Talking about Kaczynski may be a way to obliquely address our ambivalence, or even anger, toward a social reality at odds with vaunted American ideals of freedom and independence. Talking about Kaczynski—unambiguously bad, maladjusted, and safely in prison—may also be a way to repress this ambivalence. More than likely, it is both.

The most recent attempt to metabolize Kaczynski’s actions is Ted K, released February 18. Directed by Tony Stone and starring Sharlto Copley as the titular character, Ted K was filmed on location in Lincoln, Mont., and is billed as offering new and penetrating insights into the psychology of the infamous domestic terrorist. Stone constructed an exact replica of Kaczynski’s cabin and based the dialogue on his journals. To convey his isolation, Copley’s Kaczynski rarely shares the frame with another human. He shoots at airplanes, shaves his chest and dances behind a fire, skins a rabbit, breaks into his neighbors’ house, and smashes offending snowmobiles. He makes phone calls to his brother and mother from a phone booth but we only hear his side of the conversation. He gets a ride in a truck (we do not see the driver). He brandishes a medium-sized rock while yelling at people on dirt bikes (they are fully suited, helmeted, and anonymous).

There are a few interactions with visible human beings. He is shown working at the lumber mill (improbably shirtless under a loose, open trench coat) that he later sabotages. If we trust Stone’s dedication to verisimilitude, we can assume that the interaction shown here is plucked from Kaczynski’s journals—but it was clearly included to support the film’s thesis that he was, in effect, an incel avant la lettre. While he removes bark from a tree trunk that he is straddling, a woman driving a backhoe tells him that he will “cut his nuts off,” to which he replies that he does not take mechanical advice from women and that she should get her husband. He gets fired. He puts sand in the mill’s engine. In this way, the film suggests, he reasserts his masculine prerogative (rather than his hatred of the mill machinery itself, the noise it was making, or the trees that it consumed).

A series of interactions with a hallucinated librarian-girlfriend buttresses the incel thesis, suggesting that Kaczynski really did desire female companionship. I am loath to fact-check this fantasy against his journals, but given his well-documented antipathy to marriage and women, this seems likely to be speculation on the part of the filmmakers—a way to support Ted K’s argument that the troubled prodigy’s psychotic violence can be reduced to sexual frustration. The film has garnered largely positive reviews.

Kaczynski’s isolation has never been in doubt, but the understanding of this total social withdrawal put forth by Stone not only smacks of faddish pop-psychological theories; it misses an opportunity to think about the culture that produced this person and this violence. I don’t doubt that he hated women, but misogyny had nothing to do with his targets, methods, or justifications. I’m not suggesting that I have a more compelling psychological explanation but that the social and intellectual context is far more interesting and useful to consider than the usual caricatures of his mental illness or “mere” devolution into eco- or anti-government terrorism.

Kaczynski was antisocial, but he was not sui generis. He had been living alone on his land in Montana since 1971, following his abrupt resignation from a tenure-track position at University of California, Berkeley. With the exception of odd jobs and letters to his brother and mother, he interacted with vanishingly few people. Absolute isolation—or, as he construed it, “autonomy”—also organized the philosophy expressed in “Industrial Society and Its Future.” There were, by the time the manifesto was written, a number of movements that he might have found sympathetic. The 1990s was a decade marked by direct-action campaigns of quasi-anarchist environmental activists at one end of the political spectrum, and the beginning of the militia movement at the other. Environmental destruction was one of Kaczynski’s main complaints, and if he never sought to join an environmental group, greens were eager to appropriate him. T-shirts with the Unabomber police sketch were a staple of late-’90s protests, and his manifesto was reprinted by any number of independent anarchist presses.

It’s tempting to place Kaczynski in a camp with his contemporary Timothy McVeigh, the Iraq veteran who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., and the FBI’s standoff at Ruby Ridge, two catalyzing events for the mid-’90s militia movements, were highly publicized examples of the federal government’s intolerance for autonomous or separatist tendencies in its citizens. We might expect a figure like Kaczynski—lonely, violent, white, male—to sympathize. But he never claimed an affiliation with militias or eco-saboteurs, and nowhere in his manifesto—which I think we should take seriously as a frank statement of his politics—does he suggest that any of these groups were philosophically close to him. Kaczynski is not particularly concerned with an unchecked state monopoly on violence or with his rights as a citizen. Indeed, a successful citizen or “modern man,” he writes, is one who is “strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence.” This powerlessness, he theorized, lay behind all human misery. This disempowerment was not a matter of legal tyranny but the so-called “system” as a whole, by which he meant industrial and technical progress under any form of government.

Radical environmental activists and militia members, he goes on, are “rebels against the system,” but so are “welfare leeches, youth gangs, cultists, Satanists, [and] Nazis.” While the existence of these groups is evidence that “the system to date has not been impressively successful in controlling human beings” and suggests potential support for the revolutionary cause of “Freedom Club” (the collective identity Kaczynski assumed while writing), none of these groups represent an ideological position articulated by him. There are groups that he hates more than others—“leftists” (a term that he uses to describe liberal university professors and other members of the professional-managerial class, rather than anarchists or socialists) get the most venomous treatment—but not one that he would ever join.

What Kaczynski wanted was to be left alone. When he found that this was impossible, he started seeking revenge on “the system” that had accomplished such a thorough enclosure that he could not, even in the wilds of Montana, live a life that was free of technology. Airplanes flew overhead; snowmobiles roared in the distance; dirt bikes rode past his cabin; the lumber mill on the neighbors’ property made constant noise; helicopters from mining companies made exploratory trips through the wilderness with dynamite. He did worry about environmental degradation and wrote letters to Earth First! journal suggesting strategies, but he seems to have worried about this primarily because it was bad for humans—whereas radical environmentalists, from early wilderness preservation efforts to Greenpeace, tended to be philosophically (and often problematically) anti-humanist. Every revolution, FC acknowledges, needs a positive ideal of some sort, and “nature makes a perfect counter ideal to the technological system for several reasons.”

Despite some tendentious cooptation by radical activists and a lifestyle that by any sentimental definition was “closer” to nature than most, Kaczynski thought of nature as a foil. It was, he argued, strategically useful. It gave people a reason to participate in the wholesale destruction of the technological system, which would be, the manifesto explicitly states, unpleasant: “[T]he process of deindustrialization probably will be very chaotic and involve much suffering.” More importantly, though, than its being a ready-made activist base and source of popular appeal, nature was not a man-made scheme.

The conviction that technology cannot be reformed but that “the economic and technological basis of the present society” needs to be overthrown was not the anathema it now appears. None other than Norbert Weiner, the founder of cybernetics, urged caution in the face of automated systems, stating in 1960 that “machines can and do transcend some of the limitations of their designers and that in doing so they may be both effective and dangerous.” Rather than being an outlier, Kaczynski might be accused of stealing some of his main arguments from the French philosopher Jacques Ellul (Ellul’s 1964 book The Technological Society was on his shelf). “Technique,” as Ellul defined it, was quite similar to “the system” of the manifesto. It was not identical to the machine but rather the organizational or systemic extension of machine logic (i.e., efficiency optimization) to all parts of society. The general mechanization of society is caused by the “action of the machine,” but is not interchangeable with it. “Technique integrates everything…. Man is not adapted to a world of steel; technique adapts him to it. It changes the arrangement of this blind world so that man can be a part of it without colliding with its rough edges.” Once the machine made its entrance, “everything had to be reconsidered in terms of the machine.”

Ellul’s prefiguration of Kaczynski’s complaint and FC’s revolutionary target is nearly perfect:

Technique integrates the machine into society. It constructs the kind of world the machine needs and introduces order where the incoherent banging of machinery heaped up ruins. It clarifies, arranges, and rationalizes; it does in the domain of the abstract what the machine did in the domain of labor. It is efficient and brings efficiency to everything.

Kaczynski did not retreat into his primitivist lifestyle until 1971; he spent 1967 through ’69 at UC Berkeley. At about the same time Herbert Marcuse was at UC San Diego, writing that the “sweeping rationality” of the current system, “which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.” The “technological universe,” Marcuse argued in One Dimensional Man (1964), “is the latest stage in the realization of a specific historical project—namely, the experience, transformation, and organization of nature as the mere stuff of domination.” Marcuse would never have made the distinction that Kaczynski did between the political and the technological. On the contrary, the apolitical appearance of technological progress was a result of its reification. But there are substantial similarities in the evaluation of technology as a system: “In the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives.” It wasn’t just Marcuse making these observations. “Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination. It is the compulsive character of a society alienated from itself,” wrote Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their 1944 essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.”

None of this is to say that Kaczynski is a philosopher on the order of Adorno, or that Adorno’s writing suggests a retreat from technology and a life in nature. What Marxists of all stripes have accepted, for better or worse, is that there is no getting out—no outside of capitalism, no outside of “the system,” no outside of technology. But it is important to recognize that this focus on the dangerous autonomy of technology is the philosophical genealogy and context for “Industrial Society and Its Future.” It was not a manifesto of environmental defense or a militia-style attack on federal government power. Kaczynski’s writing was a product of the legitimate critiques of technology circulating during his time in academia.

A typical response to the Unabomber is rather similar to the typical liberal response to any direct-action campaign: He made some good points, but his methods are faulty. But Kaczynski, despite the sizable shadow he continues to cast in the popular imagination, is not so easily assimilable. We want no part of any version of what he was advocating—total destruction of the technological system. Farming and water treatment are also matters of technological progress. Yet even though it is an obvious and unavoidable reality, we seem reluctant to fully acknowledge what Kaczynski proved: We cannot live beyond the reach of our technologies. If the Unabomber were a misguided environmentalist or an opponent of federal overreach, we would have alternative tactics to offer. But what, really, do you do about “the system” or “technique” or whatever you choose to call it?

Attacking a series of individuals affiliated with representative institutions is both inexcusable and ineffective. But most of the films about Kaczynski—all attempting, in one way or another, to explain him—betray his mystique. With the exception of The Net, a 2003 film essay by German filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck, neither Ted K nor its predecessors put their finger on the point that part of the public’s fascination with him was his autonomy from technology. In a world of QR-code restaurant menus that deposit unknown quantities of information in the hands of who-knows-what companies, some long-repressed part of us does want out. Or we would at least like to know, definitively, that we are not passively causing harm. Progress, which we can’t seem to define as anything but technological progress, has enormous human costs. The Unabomber allows us a dual pleasure: violent (and dare I say particularly American) fantasies of individualist escape and rebellion, as well as the soothing reassurance that only a madman would entertain the notion that we could or should do something about this ever-increasing technological entanglement.

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