The Unabomber dies at 81 by suicide: Why are his ideas becoming popular?

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The Unabomber dies at 81 by suicide: Why are his ideas becoming popular?

June 21, 2023 -

Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski is flanked by federal agents as he is led to a car from the federal courthouse in Helena, Mont., April 4, 1996. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons on Saturday, June 10, 2023, told The Associated Press that Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber,” has died in federal prison. The cause of death was not immediately known. (AP Photo/John Youngbear, File)

Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski is flanked by federal agents as he is led to a car from the federal courthouse in Helena, Mont., April 4, 1996. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons on Saturday, June 10, 2023, told The Associated Press that Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber,” has died in federal prison. The cause of death was not immediately known. (AP Photo/John Youngbear, File)

Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski is flanked by federal agents as he is led to a car from the federal courthouse in Helena, Mont., April 4, 1996. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons on Saturday, June 10, 2023, told The Associated Press that Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber,” has died in federal prison. The cause of death was not immediately known. (AP Photo/John Youngbear, File)

Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, captured the gaze of millions through not only his murders but also his far-fetched philosophy and mad story.

Serial killers often receive widespread media attention, but the written words of one can hardly be more recognized or infamous: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” These words make up the opening sentence of Kaczynski’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.”

Kaczynski maintained a niche following of environmental extremists and anarchists in prison, writing countless letters with apparent brilliance and wit to journalists and “fans” alike. He died June 10, two weeks ago, by suicide at eighty-one.

Why should we care about the ideas and life of a murderous madman?

The tale of Ted Kaczynski can teach Christians many things. Indeed, frighteningly, there is a surge in popularity for his ideas online.

So who was the Unabomber? Why does such a substantial group still praise his ideas?

The Unabomber, Harvard graduate

According to a criminologist, Kaczynski was “the most intellectual serial killer the nation has ever produced.” He boasted an IQ of 167, far above the genius threshold. His intelligence propelled him to skip two grades and entrance to Harvard at the age of sixteen.

Kaczynski participated in many activities, like music, language, and chess, and he read “ravenously.” He excelled in school. Although described as “quiet” and “shy,” he did not seem like an entirely estranged outcast. His high school physics teacher described him as “honest, ethical, and sociable.” That said, he said Kaczynski faced a great deal of hostility from other students by the time he left high school since he was small, young for his grade, and frighteningly smart. A fellow high school classmate said he was “regarded as a walking brain.”

At Harvard, Kaczynski was disheveled and didn’t fit in with the elites, but again, he was not entirely isolated. While there, he was one of many student subjects in a psychological study by Dr. Henry Murray. These experiments included unethical, abusive behavior against students intended to observe how they react under stress.

After Harvard, Kaczynski did postgraduate work in mathematics at the University of Michigan. He published an advanced dissertation that probably “only 10 or 12 people in the country understood.” At twenty-five, he became an assistant professor at the University of California Berkeley.

Then, rather suddenly, in 1971, he left his university job and civilization altogether. He famously lived in a shack in rural Montana and “subsisted on rabbits.” He tried to live independently in nature, away from society.

Ted Kaczynski’s descent

With his time at Harvard, he’d become seriously hostile against the world of technology and “progress.” Although brilliant, he became uninterested in mathematics and was, by all accounts, a horrible, uncaring professor.

Now isolated, weighing whether to take radical action against industrial society or live separated in the wilderness, Kaczynski described how he found a road paved through one of his favorite spots of woods—the final straw.

Then, from 1978 until 1993, he sporadically mailed homemade bombs to people loosely connected to technological progress. The manhunt became the most expensive in history but availed no leads, apart from the infamous sketch drawn from a postal officer’s memory.

In 1995, the New York Times and the Washington Post agreed to publish his anonymous manifesto under the consultation of the FBI; in return, Kaczynski said he would stop hurting people. His brother and sister-in-law eventually recognized Kaczynski’s strange writing pattern in the manifesto, which led to his identification and arrest on April 3, 1996.

His defense team pleaded insanity on his behalf, to which he strongly objected. Many in America quickly identified him as mentally ill, a lunatic. He was said to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Several have challenged this idea; the lucidity and rationality of his arguments and speech demonstrate a clear mind unmuddled by clinical pathology.

He confessed to his heinous crimes and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

In 2000, Alston Chase wrote an enlightening piece for The Atlantic about the smorgasbord of ideas Kaczynski wrestled with while at Harvard that might have formed an outlet for his broiling anger at his family and society, turning his need for revenge into a fully-fledged manifesto against technology and a spree of domestic terrorism.

The Unabomber’s ideas

Kaczynski drew from several wells of ideas. Mainly, his manifesto details how technology encroaches on freedom and how a return to natural living without large cities and governments would return freedom to people.

He also believed returning to simpler, better times would require a revolution. In his eyes, slow reform couldn’t defeat the machine of progress. Kaczynski thought the technological society would collapse, cause massive harm to everyone, and was already instilling purposelessness and ecological damage.

Alston Chase writes that the most striking thing about his manifesto is, “Except for its call to violence, the ideas it expresses are perfectly ordinary and unoriginal, shared by many Americans.” The most frightening thing about his ideas is not that “they are so foreign but that they are so familiar.”

His thinking draws from a philosopher of technology, the French thinker Jaques Ellul. Ellul possessed his own subversive and sometimes-radical sounding beliefs but, contrary to Kaczynski, was a Christian and a pacifist.

The idea that our society is bent on efficiency and revels in unthinking luxury, mindless entertainment, the exploitation of nature, and inescapable technological progress resonates with many. Both Ellul and Kaczynski portray technology as an almost living entity that’s impossible to resist. According to them, the fact that each small step appears beneficial blinds us to its long-term harm.

The Christian response

There may be some truth to their sentiment. I’ve written about the Bible’s response to the religion of technology that many unwittingly follow in “What does the Bible say about transhumanism?” There, I liken Babylon and Rome’s idea of the “Pax Romana” to transhumanism, allowing us to see the futility of scientific progress in repairing sin.

That said, several holes appear in Kaczynski’s reasoning about the doom facing us in technology.

First, the curse of sin affects nature, making “natural” life often less free than modern life. Our iPhone might indeed shackle us, but the more existential threat of hunger does not. At least we have a basic choice whether to play another hour of Candy Crush or scroll mindlessly through Instagram. Whereas, if we return to simple, tribal living, we won’t have the choice of whether blight kills our crops and we die from hunger.

Second, nature rules through “red tooth and claw” and is far from idyllic. Nature is beautiful, but also chaotic and threatening without any protection. The old idea of the “noble savage” is bunk; living in small groups rather than cities won’t fix many problems. Humans face all kinds of sin at all technological development stages and cultures, even if large systems can magnify the effect of particular sins (like corruption or injustice). Kaczynski redefines freedom as direct control over your life or death through hunting, defending yourself against wild animals, etc. But even with his definition, returning to simpler times does not seem to avail us of freedom.

Third, we can accept critiques of modern life while rejecting the need for any violent uprising. Strong evidence links loneliness and purposelessness to a lack of responsibility in the face of hardship and screen addiction, something Ellul and Kaczynski would predict. However, violent uprisings historically almost always lead to tyranny and authoritarian rule, the opposite of freedom.

Ironically, Kaczynski’s picture of the possibility of a return to simpler times through revolution was far too optimistic.

Intelligence is not wisdom

Ultimately, Kaczynski was an idealist, principled, and uncompromising about his beliefs. The apt comparison of him and the fictional character Raskolinov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment reminds us that intellect and “book smarts” do not lead to moral living. If anything, a high IQ can lead to pride—which “comes before the fall” and can lead to great evil.

Intelligence alone does not lead to wisdom.

Kaczynski was disconnected from the community and felt alienated, which led to a build-up of hatred and a lack of empathy. In contrast, God calls Christians to love and think humbly within the church community and under the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Without looking to God as a source of truth, loving others we disagree with, and thinking humbly with other image-bearers, we risk falling prey to extremist ideas.

Regardless, Christians must follow the way of Christ. Jesus proposes a nonviolent revolution of love and kindness, preaching the good news of Jesus raised and his salvation as a gift to humanity.

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