The Unabomber

I had only a passing knowledge of the Unabomber episode when I came across this book in a Phnom Penh bookshop a few weeks ago, but the prospect of finding out more about this mathematician-turned-bomber was enough temptation for me to buy it and find out more. I was given extra impetus to write about this topic when I woke up this morning to the developing news story about the bombing of the Boston marathon, which is vaguely yet disturbingly reminiscent of Ted Kaczynski’s semi-random bombings during the last quarter of last century.

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, was a clever mathematician on his way to earning tenure when, two years into an assistant professorship at UC Berkeley, he suddenly quit and became a recluse living in a remote Montana cabin without electricity or running water. After a few years he started mailing bombs to people and organisations. Over a twenty year period he sent a total of 16 bombs across America, killing three people and injuring 23–he seemed to target universities and airlines, hence the name “Unabomber” given to him by the media. In 1995, toward the end of his bombing campaign, his manifesto was published, at his request with the promise to stop sending bombs, by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The gist of his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, and his justification for killing people, is that he thinks that industrialisation inevitably causes individuals to lose their freedom and that a violent revolution is needed to prevent a future in which human life becomes unnatural and meaningless because of our dependence on technology.

The Unabomber’s 35,000 word manifesto is included in the book and I found it interesting enough to read it in full, if only because it gave an insight into how political ideology can motivate an intelligent person to kill people. In fact, there are parts of the manifesto in which it’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the rational, reasonable ideas from the absurd ones. There’s a particular section titled (something like) “Motivations of Scientists”, which I found intriguing. Kaczynski argues that the common claims by scientists’ that they do science “out of curiosity”, or “to help people”, are fallacious since specialised scientific questions could not satisfy any natural kind of curiosity and that “science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race”. This is meant to degrade science for it is merely a “surrogate activity” that promotes the pursuit of “artificial” goals, rather “real” goals, like hunting and scavenging. My view is that Kaczynski’s argument is mostly bollocks; that curiosity is a legitimate reason to pursue science; and that, in the modern world, science is one of the most meaningful pursuits that one can undertake. Of course, my point of view is exactly what Kaczynski would expect from a budding “Leftist” (to use Kaczynski’s terminology) scientist and therefore it’s probably true that our points of view are irreconcilable.

The book itself is quite unremarkable, probably since it was hastily put together so that it could be published when the story was most topical. I would guess that someone has since written a more eloquent account of the Unabomber episode, but this one does a good enough job of conveying the essential information.

As for the relation of this to the recent bombing of the Boston marathon mentioned earlier, I think it’s plausible that this event is also the result of a rogue individual motivated by a fringe political ideology–although this is completely unfounded speculation.

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