Printing the Unabomber's treatise isn't a journalistic decision. it's a human one

September 20, 1995|By Mike Littwin

Now that the Washington Post has given over eight of its news pages to a 35,000-word treatise from the Unabomber, what's next?

If we're lucky, nothing.

If we're lucky, this guy was serious. He just wanted to be heard. And the next sound we hear from him will be dead silence.

If we're lucky, he subscribes to the mostly discredited theory that the pen (or printing press) is mightier than the sword (or plastique).

In other words, if all goes well, the Unabomber keeps his promise and won't blow up any more professors/technocrats.

Of course, if we're not so lucky, he laughs at the idea that anybody should take seriously the promise of a terrorist and blows up somebody else in the name of his one-person campaign against the ravages of modern technology.

Meaning the Post looks, well, stupid.

Except I don't think the Post was stupid, whatever happens.

The Post, as you probably know by now, gave in to the Unabomber's demand that either the Post or the New York Times print his screed by this Sunday or else. We know what the or-else is. We've seen the mail bombs and the maimings and the deaths. He's been doing it for 17 years. There is little reason to believe that, given the slightest excuse, he wouldn't do it again.

And yet, in newsrooms across America, in places where they think newspapers are important and not simply fish wrap, tough-talking reporters have been saying that the Times and Post would never submit.

Outside newsrooms, we hear rumblings from the you-can't-negotiate-with-terrorists crowd. Their theory, as so many theories, sounds good, except when applied to real life. Everyone, even the Israelis, negotiates with terrorists. If you read your Iran-contra literature carefully, you'll see that the United States gave missiles and even baked goods to the Ayatollah to secure the release of hostages.

What should the Post have done?

What would you have done when the FBI comes to you and says -- virtually guarantees -- that if you don't print his little manifesto, he will kill more people?

In the end, do you have a choice?

The Post and Times, a couple of billion-dollar companies, spent $40,000 and risked a little of their prestige in an attempt to save actual lives. Doesn't seem like that tough a bargain.

In fact, it's somewhat heartening in these days when television is clearly the medium of choice to discover that somebody still values newspapers.

I mean, newspapers are so, well, full of words, you know.

In your standard hostage situation, the hostage-taker invariably wants to get his picture on TV. He calls in the cameras -- dreaming, of course, of meeting an actual anchor person -- makes his demands and then is pretty much satisfied that he's done his job.

The demands are usually in the form of a list. You can tick them off, like groceries.

Terrorism has always been an effective tool. But once you put the immediacy of television into the mix, you've got ratings to contend with, too. Remember, that's how "Nightline" got its start.

One of the major arguments against printing the Unabomber's words is that there will be copy-cat offenders. Many of us can remember the airplane hijacking fad, in which you couldn't get into an airplane without having a realistic chance of landing in Havana.

But many terrorists haven't banged out 35,000 words for anyone to print. If there's anything we know about the Unabomber, it is that he has more on his mind than making a few demands. He's had at least 17 years to think about what he's doing. You'd like to think that, after all that time, he finally determined that blowing up professors wasn't changing the world.

It did get him noticed, though. And now he has a forum.

The 35,000 words he handed over to the newspapers were just a summary of his beliefs. He's got more, lots more. You know that if it didn't mean that he might get caught, he would have loved to stick an 800 number on the bottom of his piece, so you could talk about it with him.

You may not agree with anything he says (although some of what he says is actually interesting). You may agree with the people who printed his words that they had nothing to do with journalism.

But what if they saved a life?

How do you argue against that?

Mike Littwin's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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