Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist
by Alston Chase
352 pages, $26.95
In 1996 when the FBI delved into the Montana woods and emerged with a gaunt, disheveled man whom they said was the perpetrator of the infamous "Unabomber" attacks, the country was riveted. For nearly two decades, this mysterious man had targeted scientists and technology professionals with bombs hidden in mailed packages, disguised as books, or embedded in pieces of scrap wood. The year before, when a long screed against "technological society," allegedly by the Unabomber, had appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times, speculation about the man's identity had become almost a national pastime. Who was this terrorist who showed scientific genius in the construction of his bombs and adorned those deadly devices with cryptic riddles, apparently predicated on literary allusions?
The answer, Americans learned, was Ted Kaczynski, a socially awkward former math professor who had resigned from a position at Berkeley in the late sixties to plot a serial bombing campaign from his cabin in rural Montana. The media's frenzied but somewhat shallow reporting on Kaczynski made sense of his story in simple terms. Kaczynski, it was explained, fit into the familiar categories of the quiet, psychopathic loner and the sixties-era environmentalist gone radically violent. And if, as some suggested, he was also a paranoid schizophrenic, then the strange course of his life and actions would require even less explanation. Maybe he was just plain crazy.
But not everyone was convinced that that was all there was to it. One writer, whose own life had followed a somewhat similar trajectory to Kaczynski's, became interested in the forces that had conspired to make Kaczynski what he was. Like Kaczynski, Alston Chase, a historian of science and ideas, had attended Harvard as an undergraduate during the fifties. And like Kaczynski, he had later gone on to graduate study and a professorship in the sixties, only to abandon teaching toward the end of that decade to live in rural Montana. Chase had long been interested in writing a book about the upheaval of the 1960s and its long-term effects on the world of ideas. As someone who had apparently been radicalized by that era, Ted Kaczynski, Chase decided, might serve as an apt lens through which to explore the topic.
But when Chase began to dig into his subject, he found that his assumptions about Kaczynski were largely mistaken. Kaczynksi's fierce vendetta against technological society, he learned, had taken shape not in the politically charged atmosphere of 1960s Berkeley, but years earlier. And contrary to the media's portrayal, kaczynski was neither clinically insane nor an inveterate loner, but merely a shy, studious man with a normal childhood and a modest circle of friends and acquaintances. In fact, Kaczynski, Chase increasingly came to believe, was in many ways average. Which led Chase to wonder—What could possibly have led him to react against the forces of science and technology with such violence?
His search for answers led him back to his alma mater. Having graduated from Harvard only a few years ahead of Kaczynski, Chase had been exposed to many of the same experiences and classes. The university, he recalled, had been a vast, impersonal place where rich prep school graduates set the tone. And Chase learned from accounts offered by Kaczynski and classmates who knew him that Kaczynski, a financially struggling scholarship student with limited social skills, had been a social nonentity. As a result, he had ended up almost wholly absorbed by his studies.
The curriculum at the time, Chase knew, had been undergoing important changes. In the aftermath of World War II there was growing concern about the havoc that could be wrought by knowledge acquisition in the absence of a guiding moral framework. At Harvard a committee had set out to counter this problem by devising a new set of required courses known as the "General Education" curriculum, featuring broad, interdisciplinary survey courses that heavy-handedly warned students about the dangers of science and technology pursued for their own sakes. Down that road, professors warned, lay the impulses that had led to concentration camps and the atom bomb. Though the intention of this curriculum had been to uplift students and inspire a commitment to democracy and shared moral values, its effect was instead to frighten and depress. After all, students were absorbing the ideas of such writers as Nietzsche ("God is dead.") and Spengler ("This machine-technics will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments."). Chase noted that in Kaczynkski's "Unabomber Manifesto," written decades later, many of his arguments against science and technology were nearly identical to those that had been drummed into Harvard undergraduates of the 1950s. Clearly, Harvard's "culture of despair," as Chase had come to think of it, had made a lasting impression on Kaczynski.
But the Harvard experience that Chase came to believe had had the most detrimental impact on the impressionable Kaczynski was his participation in a three-year-long psychological study at the hands of Professor Henry A. Murray. Murray was an eminent psychologist whose approach to his research seemed to embody the kind of morality-free pursuit of knowledge against which the General Education curriculum so strenuously warned. His study had no clear purpose. He simply seemed voyeuristically interested in probing into every aspect of his subjects' lives using batteries of tests, intrusive questions, and close observation. The experiment about which he seemed most excited was one in which he put the subject in a dark room, strapped electrodes to his body, shone a blinding spotlight in his face, and watched through a one-way mirror as a law student whom the subject had been misled to believe was an undergraduate his own age hostilely and cruelly attacked what Murray knew to be that particular student's core beliefs and values.