Bloody-Minded Philosophers

Is the 1995 decision of the Department of Justice, the Washington Post, and the New York Times to publish the Unabomber Manifesto coming home to roost? Yes, it may have saved lives by prompting Theodore Kaczynski's brother to investigate similar quirks of style and identify him to the FBI as a possible suspect. But it also set a dangerous precedent. Terrorism gets attention. When a mentally disturbed man, allegedly James J. Lee, tried to take hostages with threats of explosions at the Discovery Channel headquarters in suburban Maryland, only the gunman was killed, by a police sniper.

Of course the cases are different. Lee was anything but stealthy, announcing his protest to the world apparently peacefully before going over the edge. Theodore Kaczynski never published a rationale for his decades-long undercover terror campaign until 1995, when he unleashed a crisis in air transportation with new threats, resentful that the Oklahoma City bombing had upstaged him.

Most initial academic and popular reaction to the manifesto ranged from condescension to scorn. It seemed to be a mediocre imitation of radical environmental philosophers like the Norwegian Arne Naess, with some Frankfurt School pop psychology thrown in, a caricature of the self-hating academia. But it was easier to imprison  Kacynski than to ignore his work. David Gelernter, seriously injured by one of his mail bombs and leading critic of media presentation of the Unabomber, castigated the media at the time, but to little avail.

Bill Joy began his own widely distributed manifesto, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," with a quote from Kacynski via Gelernter. More recently a Stanford academic persuaded by the family to begin correspondence with Kaczynski in prison, Jean-Marie Apostolidès, has translated the manifesto into French and is now writing, according to his university's web site, "a philosophical and psychological study, Of Ink and Blood: The Writings of Theodore Kaczynski."

If an obscure assistant professor of philosophy had submitted the Unabomber Manifesto to an academic publisher, it would at best have been returned for major revisions. Even Professor Apostolidès tacitly acknowledges that it became a notable book only through its connection with crime. Yet Naess is little known outside environmental philosophy and green activism -- the latest collection of his writings ranks no. 669,591 on the bestsellers list and has only one reader review on the site.

The line between crime and ideas was once observed more scrupulously. The late nineteenth century French civil servant, critic, and terrorist plotter Félix Fénéon retreated from the public sphere after his controversial acquittal, declaring "I aspire only to silence." The Nietzschean writings of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb did not join the common culture. The distinguished figures who served Soviet international assassination squads separated their clandestine mayhem from their scientific and literary output. As Stephen Schwartz has written of the "killerati":

When Stalin's men sought agents for the most depraved and most criminal tasks, they found them not among brutes of the underworld, but among sensitive and cultivated people in the highest levels of intellectual society -poets and psychiatrists who became conspirators and spies.

Lee was not trying to advance himself as a theorist; he is not known to have cited the Unabomber Manifesto. But it's hard to dismiss the fear that the Manifesto's continuing fascination has taught that in the realm of ideas, violence works.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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