Interviews May 2003

The Disease of the Modern Era

Alston Chase, the author of Harvard and the Unabomber, argues that we have much to fear from the forces that made Ted Kaczynski what he is
Harvard and the Unabomber

Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist
by Alston Chase
W.W. Norton
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.

In Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, published this spring, Chase lays out his argument for the idea that Kaczynski is a product of 1950s forces and that, "by the time of [his] graduation [from Harvard] in 1962, all the elements that would ultimately transform him into the Unabomber were in place." He details not only Harvard's "culture of despair" but also the era's sinister atmosphere of Cold War science in which university research departments, secretly funded by the CIA, undertook ethically questionable experiments on human subjects. Kaczynski's brush with Murray, Chase makes clear, was a brush with that shady world.

Though he concedes that Kaczynski is a complex and fascinating character, Chase argues that he should not be viewed as an anomaly. His alienation may be more profound and more violent than most people's, but it differs in degree rather than in kind, Chase suggests, from the alienation of countless other Americans. Indeed, what should be seen as most remarkable about his Unabomber manifesto, Chase explains, is not that it is especially unique or brilliant—Chase argues that it is neither of those things—but that it is "a compendium of philosophical and environmental clichés that expresses concerns shared by millions of Americans." In Chase's view, then, as an extreme but still representative American, Kaczynski should serve as an important warning.

[Kaczynski] is not unique. Psychological compulsion alone did not drive him to this point. Rather, his turn to terrorism fits a pattern. He is a child of his time, shaped in part, to be sure, by his personal history and even perhaps his genes, but also by his embracing, of his own free will, ideas that make the era in which we live a time of terror.

Alston Chase was formerly the chairman of the philosophy department at Macalaster College in Minnesota. He is the author of Playing God in Yellowstone (1986) and In a Dark Wood (1995). He lives in Livingston, Montana with his wife.

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On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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