Unabomber Manifesto Revisited


We aren’t the first to mention that the world today seems to be going crazy.

--From the Unabomber’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”


Across 35,000 words he rumbled and he rambled and railed about science and new machines. When it was first published last September, the Unabomber’s manifesto was almost unbearable to read. Not only was it long and boring, but its very publication seemed gratingly unfair. This was the work of a sneaky assassin. He had not earned a seat at the debate.


Rereading the treatise now provides a different experience. With the arrest of its suspected author, a one-time university professor named Ted Kaczynski, the manifesto presents the human subtext that was so lacking before. Now it is possible to detect clues, intended and otherwise, buried amid plodding phrases. Now it is possible to imagine the author at work, holed up in a crude cabin on the Continental Divide, munching on home-grown vegetables, tap, tap, tapping away on a manual typewriter, telling the world how to live.


Consider the following passage: “One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations. . . . The over-socialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many over-socialized people, this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship. We suggest that over-socialization is among the more serious cruelties that human beings inflict on one another.”

Before, this seemed like so much blather. Now it must be read in the context of reports that Kaczynski’s parents were ardent liberals who schooled the painfully shy boy in their politics, drilled him for academic brilliance. It raises a psychologist’s question: Just who was the author trying to reach?

Clearly much of the manifesto seems, now, a defense of a certain hermit’s own lifestyle. Modern technology, it argues, trivializes the ancient quests for food, water and shelter, makes life boring. The western pioneers had a better deal, “born and raised in a log cabin, outside the reach of law and order and fed largely on wild meat.” Guess who spent their last 20 years in a cabin, outside the reach of law and order, dining on wild meat?

With modern life so empty and easy, the Unabomber asserts, a person will develop “surrogate activities . . . for the sake of ‘fulfillment’ that he gets from pursuing the goal, not because he needs to attain the goal itself. For instance, there is no practical motive for building enormous muscles, hitting a little ball into a hole or acquiring a complete series of postage stamps. Yet many people in our society devote themselves with passion to bodybuilding, golf or stamp collecting.” Here, he might have added bomb-building, because by the Unabomber’s own logic the best explanation of his lethal pastime was to lend a little thrill, a sense of purpose, to an otherwise forfeited life.


Some passages seem crafted to throw off snoopers. There are complaints about driving; Kaczynski traveled only by bicycle and bus. Conversely, it is interesting to note how the author feels compelled to number every paragraph: a mathematician’s quirk? Also, his nastiest venom is reserved, revealingly enough, for academicians; Kaczynski, it is now known, mysteriously walked away from a UC Berkeley professorship 30 years ago: “There is no law that says we have to go to work every day and follow our employer’s orders. Legally there is nothing to prevent us from going to live in the wild like primitive people.”

It could be argued that the Unabomber at least had the courage of his convictions. He--again, assuming the feds have the right man--lived in “wild nature.” He battled the machine. The essayist himself seemed to anticipate another analysis, namely, that he was stone crazy: “The concept of ‘mental health’ in our society is defined largely by the extent to which an individual behaves in accord with the needs of the system and does so without showing signs of stress.”

While psychologists might find the manifesto a magic key into the criminal motivation, prosecutors will be more interested in the type itself: the way the lower case ‘r’ leans to the right, the fact the number ‘3’ is filled with ink from overuse. At this state of the Unabomber’s deadly game, the manifesto’s importance is not whether it made points about the evils of technology. It is whether the document can be matched to manual typewriters found in Kaczynski’s cabin.

In the end, what might do in the Unabomber is not his anti-machine message, but his machine.