The Unabomber Essay

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The Unabomber

Executive Summary

            The Unabomber, named for his initial attacks on universities and airlines, (“un” in his FBI code name was short for university, and “a” referred to airlines), was responsible for placing or mailing sixteen package bombs and letter bombs that resulted in three deaths and nearly two dozen injuries in the United States. After one of the longest and most expensive manhunts in the nation’s history, the FBI seized Ted Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated mathematician turned recluse, who later pleaded guilty for the attacks.


            Serial killers, although often described as “monsters”, rarely appear to be creatures with blood dripping from their fangs or crazed psychopaths babbling satanic rituals. While a few are exactly like that, many appear at first glance to be healthy, normal and even attractive people. Within the narrative of the secret, the serial killer’s body and psyche appear as double-layered, combining the deceptively normal surface and the monstrous depth.

Like John Wayne Gacey and Ted Bundy, the overwhelming majority of serial killers seem on the surface to be normal-looking individuals who go to work or school, come home, and blend into their environments. And that is precisely the problem – with a serial killer a victim rarely gets beyond the first glance. Others are simply invisibly unmemorable and unnoticeable, until somebody notices them killing. This is the case with the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, famous for sending mail bombs to his victims.

They say that the twentieth century is an age of specializations; if that is true, then it certainly applies to serial killers. Each serial killer falls into a specific category and rarely does his murders across the parameters defining the categories. This kind of categorization has become important in police investigations because it helps identify the probable characteristics of a suspect in the process the police use called criminal profiling.

But there was some controversy over the effectiveness of the FBI profiling of Kaczynski. Moreover, there are some disturbing questions over the Unabomber and the nature and motive of his crimes. When identified and captured, he showed no signs of organic mental illness. What made this man cross the line to kill? A peek into Kaczynski’s background will definitely raise a question to many. What motivated such a brilliant mathematician and professor into committing such crimes?

The Unabomber’s Background

Theodore John Kaczynski was born on May 22, 1942, to Wanda and Theodore R. Kaczynski, two literate, well-read, first-generation Polish immigrants (Arrigo, 2004). The family was atheistic and lived in a Chicago neighborhood known as the Back of the Yards. The “Yards” referred to the nearby stockyards where animals were processed and slaughtered (Kushner, 2003). There is ample evidence to suggest that Ted was a man who suffered from severe disruption of community beginning infancy. To begin with, after only a few weeks of life, little Ted became ill and was hospitalized for several months.

In accordance with standard hospital protocol during the 1950s, he was placed in an isolation unit, where he was deprived of all contact with his family (Vronsky, 2004). This severely undermined the development of a stable sense of community at the primary level. In fact, according to Hardy and Laszloffy (2005), the only human contact Ted had during his months of hospitalization was via the sterile and perfunctory tasks that were administered by nurses who changed his diapers, fed him and performed various medical procedures.

Throughout childhood, his lack of social engagement was indisputable, as was his intellect. At the age of six, he scored in the 160-170 range on the Stanford-Binet intelligent test (Gibson, 2004). He had the I.Q. of a genius; he enjoyed, and memorized, the parliamentary procedure guide Robert’s Rules of Order. He read Scientific American at the age of ten, and the next year he taught himself calculus. Early interest in chemicals led the schoolboy into minor trouble. He made small explosive packets and set them off.

On one occasion he worked with a friend who made the mistake of substituting a pound of chemical for a gram. The result blew up the lab. He was a National Merit Finalist who graduated from high school at 16 and Harvard at 20 (Kushner, 2003). He had a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where he was regarded as a brilliant mathematician and his dissertation was voted the best in math for the year. He accepted an appointment as an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he published articles on mathematics in academic journals and remained for two years in the late 1960s before withdrawing into a hermit-like lifestyle.

The UNABOM Investigation

            The first bomb went off on May 26, 1978, injuring a campus police officer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (Harmon, 2000). A total of 16 bombings were attributed to Kaczynski, some of the bombs sent by mail, while others left in public places, often at universities. Because Ted’s early targets were associated with universities (UN) and airlines (A), in 1980, the FBI code-named its investigation UNABOM.

The next three bombings also occurred in the Chicago area, one in another university, another was detonated on an airplane and the fourth was mailed to an airline executive. Although the airlines bomb threat turned out to be a hoax, it nevertheless increased public anxiety over terrorism, disrupted the U.S. Postal Service as a temporary ban was placed on all airmail packages sent from California weighing more than twelve ounces, forced authorities to increase security measures at California airports, which in turn led to major delays for traveling.

The last exploded on April 4, 1995, and killed Gilbert Murray, President of the California Forestry Association in Sacramento, California (Chase, 2004). In the 17 years between those two blasts, the Unabomber who called himself “FC” punctuated the greatest manhunt in American history with occasional flashes of terror, destruction, and death. His bombs claimed the lives and limbs of scientists, businessmen, a computer store owner, and executives.

When he threatened to blow up an airliner, air traffic and mail service were disrupted for a week. Better safe than sorry – after all, he had bombed a plane before. Although he “signed” his meticulously crafted bombs with the FC initials, Ted Kaczynski who emulated a character from a Joseph Conrad novel was completely anonymous. To the frustrated law enforcement officers who chased him, even his very existence must have seemed questionable – except when the bombs went off.

Officers from three federal and a host of local and state law enforcement agencies tracked the elusive suspect over two decades and an entire continent without ever having a clue as to his real identity. A sketch, made from an eyewitness description in 1987, was the best lead to Ted, depicted mustached and wearing aviator sunglasses and a hooded sweatshirt (Gibson, 2004).

A billion-byte computer database used by the FBI in the Unabomber investigation held over 50,000 names, but FC’s true name was not among them. Although the investigation had labored for years in relative silence, this was changed dramatically when the last bomb went off. There was a $1 million reward on Ted’s head, and scientists, airline executives, and university professors around the country were taking extreme precautions with their mail. And it was the mail that was to be the beginning of the end for the Unabomber.

Closing In the Net of Law

In April and May of 1995, the Unabomber began writing letters to news media outlets, shopping a 35,000-word manuscript on the evils of modern technology entitled “industrial Society and its Future”, and offering to stop the bombings if the New York Times and Washington Post published it. In that document, the Unabomber railed against technology, consumerism, advertising, “oversocialization”, the government, and corporations – all in relation to the individual’s loss of freedom.

Ted’s manifesto which also presented justifications for his violence was published on September 19, 1995, in the Times and the Post (Arrigo, 2004). Excerpts appeared in other newspapers around the country, and a California publisher printed it in book form, selling 3000 copies. The FBI had encouraged publication, hoping that someone would read the manifesto and recognize the author. In Schenectady, New York, someone did.

Ted’s brother David Kaczynski, assistant director of a youth shelter, read FC’s manifesto, and some of the facts known to David fit all too neatly. Not only was the writing very similar, down to certain expressions and phrases Ted had used in letters or earlier writings, but at least two of the bombings appeared to coincide with loans that David had made to Ted. Acting on David’s behalf, a lawyer approached the FBI to report these suspicions. Investigation of David’s information confirmed his worst fears.

The FBI quickly gathered the evidence needed to arrest and convict the man who had been hidden for so long. Following several weeks’ surveillance, FBI agents arrested Ted on April 3, 1996, as the Unabomber suspect (Harmon, 2000) – although initially charging him with possession of bomb components. In a search of the cabin, agents recovered 20,000 pages for Ted’s writings, including detailed descriptions of the bombings, and his preparations for, and reactions to, these attacks (Theoharis, et. al., 1999). They also recovered bomb parts and one live package bomb, ready for mailing.

The Last Episodes

            On June 18, 1996, a federal grand jury in Sacramento indicted Kaczynski for the two California killings (in 1985 and 1995), and on October 1, 1996, he was indicted in Newark for the 1994 killing of an advertising executive (Gibson, 2004). He pled not guilty to both indictments. Jury selection in the Sacramento trial began in November 1997 and lasted five weeks (Sanders and West, 2003).

Just as opening statements were to begin, Ted (in a written statement to the judge) expressed dissatisfaction with his lawyer and their anticipated line of defense that he is mentally ill, but not evil. He moreover had refused to be examined by government psychiatrists. Following Kaczynski’s last-minute request to defend himself, the judge ordered a psychiatric assessment of Ted’s competence. While the court-approved psychiatrist found him competent to stand trial, she raised questions about his mental health.

No trial was held, however, because on January 21, 1998, Ted Kaczynski eventually changed his initial plea of “not guilty” (Chase, 2004) and was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a federal prison without parole, escaping the death penalty David feared. He did not acknowledge David or other family members who attended the court proceedings. Prior to his arrest, Ted had written to his brother, setting forth his feelings about future contact with the family he rejected as he had the rest of the world. Fortunately for the intended recipient of that live bomb found in the cabin, Theodore Kaczynski cut his brother’s access off too late.

Kaczynski’s Contribution to U.S. Conspiracy Theory

            Individuals like Kaczynski from time to time get so enmeshed in their conspiratorial visions that they act them out, sometimes violently as in the case of the Unabomber. Ted’s conspiracism represented a new turn in anti-statist, anarchistic ideas. His eclectic, anti-technology beliefs were completely idiosyncratic and drew their inspiration from the conviction that technophile elite in world society would soon control the global population and, in the process, destroy human freedom.

Ted saw his campaign as being in some way a statement against humanity’s destruction of the natural environment. Second, Kaczynski’s lengthy bombing campaign sparked an intensive wave of media attention and resulted in much heated paranoid rhetoric about the identity of the mysterious figure. By acting entirely alone, Ted showed the way in which a single individual bent on terrorism can obtain unprecedented publicity for his view.

Because no group ever took responsibility for the bombings, the U.S. media and law enforcement profilers generated numerous theories about the perpetrator’s identity. Some of these pointed to the bomber’s alleged anti-Semitic beliefs, due to the Jewish names of a few targeted victims, while other theories suggested that the suspect was either an extreme right-wing populist or a mentally unbalanced thrill seeker (Sanders and West, 2003).

Despite the hunt for Ted taking 17 years and costing the federal government over $60 million, authorities long remained stymied in the effort to apprehend the serial bomber whose modus operandi involved mailing concealed explosive devices to university professors with research specializations in fields including genetics, psychology and computer science, as well as to some corporate executives.

The Politics of Labeling

            The real story has less to do with the violence itself but rather regards the sleight-of-hand definitional changes whereby the Unabomber is couched in one discourse or another depending on the current strategic needs of the law enforcement community. Finally, law enforcement officials realized that it was they and the media that had made the Unabomber omnipotent.

At the same time, the ostensible terrorist was openly scornful of the attempts to capture him. This was, indeed, a dangerous game, for it could easily escalate and jeopardize the billions of dollars expended annually to counter terrorism. So at last the frustrated forces of counterterrorism took their only possible revenge on the Unabomber: “We made you a ‘terrorist’ and now we are making you a ‘non-terrorist’!” The Unabomber has been downgraded to a mere serial killer and sacred budgets, if not necessarily their taxpayers, remain secure.


Looking into the Unabomber case, Kaczynski’s use of bombs can be directly associated to terrorism. It is because the weapon is the one most commonly used in many terrorist activities. But then again, whereas these crimes are usually perpetuated by infamous groups, Kaczynski is all alone in his endeavors. On the other hand, it is also true that Kaczynski can be labeled as a serial killer.

The mere fact that he works on his own – a characteristic directly associated to the former – almost qualify him as one. While it is true that Kaczynski’s actuations is due to his oppositions to technological advancement, the latter does not see his advocacy as part of any political agenda. Although he was tagged as a paranoid schizophrenic by psychiatrists, he denied all those allegations and even felt bad when his “mental status” was used as a defense.

To prove that he was not suffering from such illnesses, he had plans of firing his lawyers in exchange of representing himself. On one hand, his actions were similar to terrorism, yet, he is not that psychologically deranged either. In the first place, he would not make a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence without parole.

He is aware that he will be subjected to gas chamber because of what he did. Apparently there is one aspect in him that merits his rationality. But while dilemmas seem to embody this case, new ideas continue to emerge as the years pass by. Nowadays, there is this so-called “narcissistic terrorism” characterized by “loner terrorists”, who separate themselves from the community and create feelings of grudge and hatred against society and they usually have a political view.

Such motivates them to engage into terrorist activities. This definition perfectly describes Kaczynski’s case. As mentioned, only after his seclusions did he perform those bombing activities. More so, the definition did not state that narcissistic terrorists must have a political view—rather; the term “usually” was employed. If the case was presented in this manner, he might have been indicted with a death sentence.

He cannot be really considered as someone afflicted with mental illness because he was fully aware that what he did was wrong at the time that he was spreading bomb scares. Otherwise, he could not have conducted a bargain with the court, the issue of psychological imbalance come into play, only if the accuse does not have notions of what is right or wrong while performing a crime. This is why many serial killers, as opposed to terrorists—were often pardoned.


Arrigo, B. (2004). Psychological Jurisprudence: Critical Explorations in Law, Crime, and Society. New York: State University of New York Press.

Chase, A. (2004). A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated.

Gibson, D. (2004). Clues from Killers: Serial Murder and Crime Scene Messages. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

Hardy, K. & Laszloffy, T. (2005). Teens who Hurt. New York: The Guilford Press.

Harmon, C. (2000). Terrorism Today. Oxon: Frank Cass Publishers.

Kushner, H. (2003). Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Sanders, T. & West, H. (2003). Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. U.S.: Duke University Press.

Theoharis, A., Poveda, T., Powers, R. & Rosenfeld, S. (1999). The FBI. Phoenix, Arizona: The Oryx Press.

Vronsky, P. (2004). Serial Killers. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group.

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