An academic perspective for the Unabomber

March 09, 2003|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff

Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, by Alston Chase. W.W. Norton. 352 pages. $26.95.

Take America's fascination with sociopathic murder and pair it with the intellectual mystique surrounding Harvard, and you should have a great tale to be told. And Alston Chase, a Harvard graduate and a former civilization fleer to Montana himself, has told it -- but with a twist that carries his new book over the edge of reasonability and readability.

Chase, often through wildly subjective interpretations of how the literature on Ted Kaczynski's cabin bookshelf influenced the Unabomber's antisocial mind and deeds, argues that Harvard subtly planted the seeds of discontent. Harvard, through a combination of social elitism, academic aloofness and a psychology experiment on students in which Kaczynski was put through the rigors of interrogation and stress, "would transform this already emotionally fragile and angry young man into a full-blown Outsider."

Kaczynski's genius-turned-homicidal character is one that's been studied over and over since his arrest in April 1996, and Chase gives us another look at it. A Harvard mathematics graduate who abruptly gave up his career as a professor to high-tail it into the Montana woods in the early 1970s, Kaczynski killed three people and wounded several others in a 17-year mail-bombing campaign. The Unabomber nickname came from the FBI, who used the first three letters in the name to signify Kaczynski's early targets -- universities and airlines (hence, un and a before the word bomber).

Chase's details of Kaczynski's student life at Harvard, which include snippets of trombone playing, general maladjustment and philosophical discussions about Kant in the all-night cafeteria, are the details that make for great reading about Kaczynski and the understanding of a notorious killer. But unfortunately, for every page that contains an illuminating anecdote, there are 20 pages of existential analysis and high-minded context for why Kaczynski did whatever he was doing at any given moment.

The book very often reads like an ivory-tower police report, carefully written and crafted with pearls of Ivy-League knowledge that the author obviously holds dear. Kaczynski had many great works of literature in his cabin, and Chase just about quotes from them all in trying to size him up.

Among the Kaczynski parallels that Chase draws are -- in one way or another -- to Prometheus, Eugene O'Neill, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, James Fenimore Cooper, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus and Timothy Leary (not necessarily in that order). Of Kaczynski's quest to bomb and maim people, the book tells us, "The books in his cabin library served as inspiration. He would avenge the Gallic king Vercingetorix, who lost the battle of Alesia in 52 B.C. to superior Roman engineering."

Clearly books and education change people. But in this regard Harvard is no different from any other college, or even a high school, for that matter. Knowledge and radical ideas aren't what breeds a killer like Kaczynski; if they were, anyone with an education beyond the eighth grade would be flinging Molotov cocktails in the streets.

The psychological experiment Kaczynski participated in, which tested, among other things, how subjects withstood interrogation, seems also unlikely to have had the deep-rooted effect Chase intimates. For one thing, none of the other Harvard students in the study became a mass bomber.

It's implausible to think that Kaczynski's hatred of scientists and just about everyone else, including his own family, is the product of a college psychology experiment and a rigid, cloistered, intellectual adolescence at Harvard. Despite all of Chase's efforts to explain the Unabomber's depths, Kaczynski, while a brilliant man, still comes across as a twisted anti-technology freak who thought his murderous ideas were revolutionary even though they were simply unoriginal hubris.

Mike James is on leave from his job as an assistant city editor at The Sun. For most of his career, he has covered issues concerning crime and the courts.

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