Books of the Times | ‘Harvard and the Unabomber’
The Unabomber and the ‘Culture of Despair’
By JANET MASLIN
Published: March 3, 2003
Alston Chase’s first assumption in his new book about Theodore J. Kaczynski is that widely propagated notions of the Unabomber as a mentally unstable loner have been conveniently misleading. This impression, Mr. Chase says, “encouraged people to say, `He killed because he was weird,’ rather than ask, `Why did someone so like me commit murder?’ ”
Of course the Everyman aspects of Mr. Kaczynski — who seriously contemplated a sex-change operation so that he could enjoy the presence of a woman in his 10-by-12-foot Montana cabin — are open to argument. But Mr. Chase has tough, persuasive points to make about the forces that shaped the Unabomber’s brand of terrorism. He argues forcefully, if at times repetitively, that the educational philosophy prevalent during this killer’s college years laid the groundwork for an all-too-epidemic brand of antisocial rage.
“As we shall see” — to use one of the favorite phrases of an academia-trained author specializing in intellectual history — this argument is complex. And it has its roots in the philosophy of science that flourished in the aftermath of World War II. In 1945, with the advent of the influential Harvard report entitled “General Education in a Free Society,” the role of ethics in academia began to be closely examined. By 1958 when Mr. Kaczynski arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate, the cold war had created covert new links between research and government, links calling for moral blinders that rendered traditional scientific ethics all but obsolete.
The precepts of “General Education,” the author writes, “delivered to those of us who were undergraduates during this time a double whammy of pessimism. From humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped, Taken together, they implied there is no hope.” This created what became a permanent fixture at Harvard and, indeed, throughout academe: “the culture of despair.”
Much of “Harvard and the Unabomber” defines this intellectual atmosphere while ticking off the attendant cultural and historical forces that helped to shape it. Such sections of the book are both familiar and overly general, as are Mr. Chase’s recapitulations of the Unabomber’s crime, capture and manifesto. But the author, who also attended Harvard (and who also made his getaway to rural Montana), succeeds in creating a provocative synthesis out of all this summarizing. And he places a malleable young Mr. Kaczynski in the midst of this moral upheaval.
The book identifies a professorial nemesis for Mr. Kaczynski in Dr. Henry A. Murray, who recruited the future Unabomber for a psychological experiment with “Manchurian Candidate” overtones. When Mr. Chase published an article on the subject in The Atlantic in June 2000, he says, the Harvard files on this work were “permanently removed” from the Murray Research Center the next month. “In this closet are many skeletons, some quite fresh,” the author announces. “The fear is that that I might open that door. And in this book I do.”
The experiments involved what Murray called “stressful disputation” or “the Dyad,” but “whatever its name, it was a highly refined version of the third degree.” Subjects like Mr. Kaczynski were humiliated, ridiculed and secretly photographed while debating overqualified opponents, in a process that Mr. Chase regards as dishonest and damaging. The future bomb-building anarchist, whose code name during this process was Lawful, would himself describe it as “a highly unpleasant experience.”
At its kinkiest the book ties Murray’s interest in hostile interpersonal dynamics not only to a C.I.A. connection but also to the doctor’s long-term sadomasochistic love affair with his colleague, Christiana Morgan. Mr. Chase notes that members of the Murray’s family take issue with this, but he also cites a bizarre diary devoted to the affair. And he concludes that Mr. Kaczynski and his classmates unwittingly served not only Murray’s highly esteemed research but also his “sadism, sexual fantasies, desire for power, anger, need to explode and cause pain.”
In any case the mixture of emasculation, snobbery and ethical confusion that Mr. Kaczynski experienced at Harvard would have lifelong effects. Soured on the value-neutral scientific method that had treated him as a guinea pig, and so angry at parental authority that he would berate his mother for mailing him the wrong nuts, Mr. Kaczynski began developing theories that were anything but incoherent ravings. Mr. Chase carefully analyzes the Unabomber’s precepts as an extension of his educational experience, and as material worth examining closely, for its roots if not for its content.
“University scholars all too willing to devote seminars to such pop cultural dross as the Grateful Dead and `Star Trek’ have virtually ignored the manifesto,” he writes. “The manifesto is neither brilliant nor a symptom of mental illness. It is a compendium of philosophical and environmental clichés that expresses concerns shared by millions of Americans.”
And not only Americans. “Harvard and the Unabomber” ultimately makes its case for the global nature of such thinking. “Terrorism is as much a product of our own history, ideas and values as those of other peoples,” he writes. “Defeating this enemy will require that we come to terms with modernism — not just science and technology but also, especially, its political thinking. A flawed conception of reason created the culture of despair, which in turn transformed our time into an age of ideologies, and these ideologies are now killing us. By politicizing everything, we leave ourselves no sanctuary.”
But it would help, he argues, if students as bright as the Harvard-era Ted Kaczynski were prized rather than ostracized, and if their work were assessed in terms of absolute morality, rather than the relativism that can so easily be rejected, subverted or ignored.
This book’s last glimpse of the Unabomber comes in an article he published last year, in a publication describing him as “a prisoner of war.” He advocates attacks on the biotechnology, entertainment and communications industries, and on computer and educational systems.
“When Henry Murray spoke of the need to create a new `World Man,’ ‘ Mr. Chase writes in conclusion to his cogent, disturbing analysis, “this was not what he had in mind.”