In April 1996, following what had been the longest criminal investigation in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), law enforcement agents arrested Theodore John Kaczynski, who later admitted to being the elusive Unabomber. Kaczynski’s contribution to U.S. conspiracy theory was two-fold. First, his 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 a technophile elite in world society would soon control the global population and, in the process, destroy human freedom.
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. 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 antisemitic 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.
Despite spending approximately $50 million in their nearly twenty-year search, 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.
Given the pattern of the bomb attacks, which commenced in 1978 and resulted in the deaths of three victims and the wounding of over twenty others, authorities began to call the case “Unabomb,” a reference to the university-oriented targeting preferences of the unknown assailant.
The Unabomber’s eventual arrest took place following the September 1995 publication in the New York Times and Washington Post of his rambling magnum opus, a 35,000-word manifesto entitled “Industrial Society and Its Future.”
In letters to both newspapers, the Unabomber offered to end his attacks if his lengthy, apocalyptic statement of anarchist principles was published. Although initially reluctant to submit to this blackmail, the newspapers were urged by FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno to agree to the strange proposal in the hope that readers of the manifesto might recognize its author.
Following the full-length printing of the essay, a major breakthrough was made in the case. Having discerned similarities between the writing in the Unabomber’s manifesto and the letters of an eccentric family member, David Kaczynski alerted FBI officials about the connection he perceived to his brother, Theodore Kaczynski.
The origins of the Unabomber’s route to violence were unusual. Born in 1942, Theodore Kaczynski grew up in a middle-class home in the suburbs of Chicago. He excelled at school and, at age sixteen, entered Harvard on a scholarship to study mathematics.
From 1962 to 1967, Kaczynski was enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he pursued a Ph.D. in mathematics and ultimately was awarded the annual Sumner Meyers Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in the field. In 1967, the shy and introverted Kaczynski was hired as an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley.
Within two years, however, he resigned his position and, following a brief period of travel in the American West and Canada, purchased a tiny piece of property in the mountains near the hamlet of Lincoln, Montana. At this remote site Kaczynski constructed a small cabin and spent the next twenty-five years living the life of a mountain recluse.
The Unabomber’s Conspiratorial Belief System
During his long stay in the rugged mountains of western Montana, Kaczynski shaped the highly idiosyncratic, extremist philosophy that led him to adopt a violent strategy. A lifelong lover of nature, Kaczynski harbored deep concerns about the rapid growth of a vast industrial and technological “system” which he felt was leading to great social disruption and the extinction of the natural world.
In his view, modern technology and those who advanced it threatened an older and more pristine way of life, one that involved living simply and in interdependence with nature.
He saw the early nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, in particular, as the marking point from which human society began to degenerate on a “supertechnological” path that left people powerlessly dependent on the “progress” made by modern science.
The institutions of science and technology not only had disastrous consequences for the environment, but, according to Kaczynski, also stripped people of their individualism and autonomy as they became pawns in a modern system of global technology dominated by governments, corporations, and other large organizations.
In his manifesto, Kaczynski laid out with great precision the conspiratorial plot he saw being employed by an elite, global class of technocrats, scientists, and “leftists” bent on subjugating human society to the power of the industrial-technological system.
Believing that the growing infiltration of supertechnology into everyday existence would further erode at human independence, Kaczynski argued that the ruling “technocracy” was creating a slave race with an ever-diminishing connection to the ideal, primitivist life he advocated.
While his politics have been a matter of some debate, Kaczynski makes clear in his manifesto his hatred of “leftist collectivists,” whom he considered (along with the technological elite) to be playing an active role in the degradation of human freedom.
As he pointed out in his treatise, the political Left benefited from the technological collectivization of humankind insofar as this trend made it impossible for dissident groups and individuals to control the circumstances of their own lives. Kaczynski believed that the “collectivist philosophy” of the Left, while superficially appealing to many, actually masked a darker impulse to control human behavior.
Although he spoke for no one other than himself in his manifesto, Kaczynski attempted to convey that a small group of revolutionaries (named “FC” to suggest the existence of a multi-person “Freedom Club”) opposed the industrial system and was engaged in planning its destruction.
His idealized plan involved having this revolutionary cadre work to weaken the economic and technological foundations of modern society to such a degree that a popular revolution against it would be possible.
In addition, he maintained that a “counter-ideology” to that of modern technology had to be developed and propagated in order to replace the current system in the postapocalyptic period when “Wild Nature” again returned to guide the course of humankind.
From the tenor of the manifesto, Kaczynski clearly believed that the industrial system was already unstable and heading for collapse. However, he believed that its ultimate destruction would take much time and require the assistance of a determined minority of revolutionaries absolutely devoted to the task.
His package bombs, sent to those perceived to be associated with the scientific, organizational, and technological aspects of the system, appear to have been an effort at expediting the revolution by fomenting chaos in the time before the death of the current civilization.
In fall 1997, in Sacramento, California, Kaczynski faced trial in federal court on numerous counts of illegally manufacturing and using bombs, as well as three counts of murder. After receiving the reports of psychiatrists, Kaczynski’s lawyers devised a defense that portrayed their client as insane.
However, Kaczynski refused to cooperate with the legal strategy and, instead, pleaded guilty to the charges in exchange for the prosecution’s word that the death penalty would not be sought. Kaczynski is currently incarcerated at the “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, where he is serving four life terms without possibility of parole.