The weaponized letter went further than just enabling small disaffected groups, however. It also attracted lone wolves, allowing them to effect outsize destruction.
Theodore John Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, was driven by a conviction that technology was a threat to humanity—as espoused in his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. Operating from his remote cabin in the woods of Lincoln, Montana, Kaczynski killed three people and injured many more between 1978 and 1995, with a series of letter bombs sent predominantly to universities. There was some irony in Kaczynski’s choice of the mail as his messenger. The U.S. Postal Service had been at the forefront of technological innovation since its inception, implementing delivery via pneumatic tubes in cities across the United States in the late 19th century, and even considering mail by missile before abandoning the idea as unworkable.
Across the Atlantic, as Kaczynski’s campaign of terror was coming to an end, Britain’s Barclays Bank began receiving crude letter bombs as part of a one-man extortion crime wave. “Welcome to the Mardi Gra experience” warned the bomber’s blackmail letters, whose pop-art design pushed some to suspect Situationist revolutionaries, art saboteurs, or even ex-military anti-consumerists. The reality was rather less remarkable. In 1999, Edgar Pearce, a middle-aged man who had prepared the letters on the photocopier at his local library, was sentenced to 21 years in prison for a campaign that had perplexed anti-terrorist officers and cost millions of pounds. And in March of this year, another man with a grudge demonstrated once again the power of the lone wolf to spread terror via the mail. Carrying out a series of deadly bombings in and around Austin, Texas, Mark Anthony Conditt was eventually tracked down by the common household ingredients he used in the bombs, later blowing himself up as he was surrounded by a police SWAT team.
A week after 9/11, a number of U.S. lawmakers and journalists were sent anthrax spores via the mail. These events gave non-state threats a new focus within intelligence agencies. At the same time, the letter’s popularity as a tool of criminal enterprise was being challenged by the internet, turning it into a bridging point between the physical and the virtual. No case better demonstrates this kind of hybrid crime than that of the Silk Road drugs marketplace, where transactions were carried out on the dark web and goods sent by mail. It was notable not just for its inventiveness, but also in the way its promise of anonymity seduced people into crime. Using the Silk Road, one group of students at the University of Manchester—comparing themselves to characters from Breaking Bad—sold over $1 million of illegal drugs to customers around the world. Their ringleader, a petrochemical-engineering student with no previous convictions, received 15 years and three months in prison. The Silk Road mastermind Dread Pirate Roberts was eventually brought down by the FBI, but only after he had effectively opened Pandora's box. Similar operations are now fueling America’s opioid addiction, and as authorities crack down on legally prescribed drugs, they're increasingly finding that even more dangerous opioids such as fentanyl are being sent anonymously through the mail from China.