No excuse for this criminal

January 07, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The surrealism surrounding the Sacramento trial of the Unabomber begins with this idea: Even if Theodore Kaczynski is guilty of the coldblooded and cowardly acts of assembling and mailing bombs that killed three people and maimed 29 during 17 years, he should not be sentenced to

death because that would distress David Kaczynski, who hastened the capture of his brother.

After reading the Unabomber's ''manifesto,'' a long denunciation technology, David notified authorities that he suspected that his brother, for many years reclusive and estranged from his family, might be the author. But this service should not earn David any consideration concerning the disposition of the case. He had a civic duty to do what he could to curtail the career of a serial killer. That he did that duty -- only after protracted agonizing -- confers on him no right to influence the moral calibrations of the criminal justice system.

Profitable collaboration

During David's collaboration with the FBI before Theodore was arrested, David believes he received from the FBI what Newsweek calls ''assurances that the government would reward his cooperation by sparing his brother's life.'' But even if he was encouraged to think that he had ''assurances,'' the FBI was still seeking a fugitive, and was entitled to use guile while avoiding what would have been, in effect, an absurdly premature plea bargain.

Theodore's lawyers wanted to argue that he is too insane to formulate an intent to kill. Defense lawyers have their duties, but who actually believes that the man who meticulously assembled sophisticated killing devices, while frustrating one of America's most ambitious manhunts, did not and could not intend to kill?

Theodore Kaczynski, who offered to plead guilty in exchange for immunity from a death sentence, inconveniently insists he is sane. This causes some people to assert that his refusal to save his life by pleading insanity proves his insanity. Similar reasoning works to make the most atrocious crimes the least punishable: ''Only someone insane could do terrible things.'' (If so, the Nuremberg trials were indefensible.)

Various ''experts'' have come forth to wring recondite conclusions from obvious facts: Theodore Kaczynski was eccentric, unhygienic, anti-social -- not to mention ''abnormally'' given to blowing people up -- and therefore. . . But nothing follows from those facts, and they do not trump two serviceable rules that can help prevent a meltdown of the criminal justice system as a means of assigning blame and affirming moral judgments.

One is that a person is responsible for his actions unless they are a pure reflex or the result of a delusional state utterly beyond rational control. The other is that if someone says, with clarity and without evident delusion, that he believes himself sane, he is.

Expert advice

Consider an actual expert. James Q. Wilson, one of the nation's foremost scholars of crime, has a lively interest in this case, for two reasons. His most recent book, ''Moral Judgment,'' concerns the ''abuse of excuses'' in the criminal justice system. And the Unabomber mentions him (blandly) in the manifesto.

Mr. Wilson believes that the writing of the closely reasoned manifesto demonstrated sanity while establishing -- indeed proclaiming -- a political motive for murder. The Unabomber's protracted, 17-year premeditation powerfully justifies the presupposition that he knew the nature and quality of his actions. Could he tell right from wrong? Clearly he thought, as terrorists do, that he was in the right and was righting wrongs.

The subjects of crime and punishment instructively demarcate differences between liberals and conservatives. The former are inclined to regard man as disposed by nature to spontaneous sociability. And they are inclined to locate the causes of crime in irrational and correctable social arrangements or, more recently, psychological or biological processes.

Liberals are disposed to favor punishment only when it is drained of retributive elements and when it is justified as therapeutic for the offender and society. Conservatives resist assaults on the concept of responsibility.

Would executing Mr. Kaczynski deter others like him? Perhaps not, but so what? One purpose of punishment is to civilize the wholesome (it buttresses civilization) desire for vengeance against the vicious. Unless the Unabomber is executed, his final victim will be society's confidence in assigning responsibility.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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