Newsreal: How mad was Ted Kaczynski?

A criminologist explores the mind of alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and finds differences with other serial killers, but believes the former maths professor, who killed three people and maimed 23 others, knew what he was doing.

By Ros Davidson
November 15, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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One reason why it may take as long as a month to select a jury in the trial of Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski is that the jurors all have to be "death penalty qualified" -- willing to impose the death penalty if Kaczynski is found guilty.

Kaczynski, 55, faces federal charges relating to four of the 16 Unabomber attacks which occurred from 1979 to 1995. The former maths professor has pleaded not guilty on all counts, but in light of the evidence against him, speculation has turned less on his guilt or innocence than on why he did it, and whether he will ultimately plead insanity.


But is the Unabomber any more or less insane than other serial killers of the recent past? What makes his actions and motivations different from others? Salon spoke with Jack Levin, director of the Program for the Study of Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, and coauthor of more than a dozen books, including "Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed" (1994, Insight Books) and most recently "Killer on Campus" (1996, Avon).

The Unabomber killed three people and clearly had hoped to kill many more in his 17-year bombing campaign. Do you see him differently than other serial murderers you have studied?

Yes. Most serial killers are sexual sadists. They kill for the fun and the pleasure, and they do it through intimate physical contact. Typically, they don't distance themselves from their victims, like the Unabomber did, because their greatest pleasure is to literally squeeze the last gasp from their dying victim's body.


Like Ted Bundy?

Ted Bundy, Kenneth Bianci the Hillside Strangler, John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 boys and men in Illinois ...

... Jack the Ripper?

Jack the Ripper also used intimate physical contact. These killers typically slash and sodomize, dismember, strangle, and they do it because it makes them feel so good. It gives them a feeling of superiority that they don't seem to be able to get by behaving themselves. But the Unabomber was quite different in that he distanced himself, in some cases by thousands of miles, from his victims.


And he didn't know them.

That's pretty typical of serial killers. They usually target absolute strangers. Very few know their victims at all well.

They don't kill their relatives.

Typically they have a small circle of relatives and friends who they don't harm. Somehow they have this incredible ability to dehumanize strangers so they can do anything they want to them with moral impunity.


Is there a serial murderer who compares with the Unabomber?

There have been other bombers, for example, George Metesky, the New York mad bomber of the 1940s and '50s. He was a middle-aged man who roamed the city blowing up people with bombs.

Did he mail them?


No, he planted them. So he also never saw his victims. He had these homemade bombs and he left letters with the newspapers after each incident.

Did the have the semblance of a normal life? A job?

Yes, and that's typical, too. Most serial murderers kill on a part-time basis. It's a hobby, not a career. Often they have a wife and a family; they play with their children, attend religious services and hold a full-time job. Then on Saturday night they go out to play the game of murder the way other guys go out and play cards.


For Kaczynski, allegedly the Unabomber, it was full time. He took voluminous notes.

That's true. Kaczynski was quite different in that respect. His whole life became devoted to his killing spree. I think his motivation was a lot more like that of a mass murderer than a serial killer.

What's the difference?

A mass murderer kills a large number of people simultaneously, like George Hennard, who killed 23 people at the Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in October 1991. He took out an AK-47 and opened fire after ramming his pickup truck through the plate glass window. Or Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad commuter killer.


What distinguishes them, apart from the fact that they do it all at once? How do you see Ted Kaczynski as a mass murderer?

Their motivation is revenge. Serial killers typically have fun; they are sexual sadists who want to feel superior to their victims. Mass murderers want to get even with all the people they feel are responsible for their problems and miseries.

Kaczynski's writings suggest that he saw technology as responsible for preventing mankind from being truly free -- like he was getting revenge on anyone associated with technology for screwing things up.

And I think that as a young man he was genuinely concerned about what we now call postmodern, high-tech society. It was a longtime concern that became a fatal preoccupation.


How does a genuine concern become a murderous preoccupation?

Many of these mass killers have a long-term cumulative set of grievances. That's why they don't typically kill until they're middle-aged men. If you want to understand Ted Kaczynski's motivations, you have to go back to his days as a young assistant professor at Berkeley. Apparently his life started to fall apart then. He was not good in the classroom and he was very frustrated in the role of academic. Things apparently got worse from there. He never found his niche, his place in life. And as he made it into middle age -- at the very time when he might have reached the pinnacle of success -- he went in the opposite direction. I'm speculating here, but that's what I would look for.

He was able to carry out this slaughter and maiming over 18 years. What does that say to you?

First of all, serial murderers are the greatest challenge to law enforcement. Most homicides are solved within the first 14 hours after they're committed, and most of them are not really murders; they're manslaughter, in the heat of the moment without malice aforethought. These guys can get away with murder for months, years, decades. Some serial murderers are never caught at all. Once reason is they're so organized and methodical.


But the Unabomber, you say, was operating out of the heat of revenge.

Yes, but like other mass killers it was methodical and selective. He thought long and hard before he committed his crimes and as result got away with it for a long period of time. That doesn't surprise me. We've got a pretty large country here, 260 million people in 50 states, and keep in mind, he literally blew up his victims and all the evidence with it.

What about the taunting? It seems very arrogant.

I think his motivation changed over the years. As a young man he may have been seriously concerned about the direction of American society and he may have felt strongly about the role that high-tech was playing and then decided he was going to try and reverse that. But I think later he became more interested in power and feeling important than he did in changing society.

That's why it always aggravates me that the Washington Post, among others, published his 35,000 word manifesto. I realize that is part of how the Unabomber was apprehended, but I contend we could have caught Kaczynski with excerpts from the manifesto. By giving this killer what he wanted, which is a perverted form of "publish or perish," we have inspired serial killer or mass killer wannabes all over the country, people who want to gain some attention. Would we have printed Jeffrey's Dahmer's 35,000-word manifesto?

One of the things that bothers me about this case is that we treat the Unabomber as some sort of anti-high-tech Robin Hood, who went astray but whose intentions were honorable. He had a Harvard education and a Ph.D. He was better able to justify his killing spree in a way that would play in Peoria. To me he's just another mass killer and he should be treated that way.

Reportedly, his defense team will argue that his childhood was traumatic. Is that enough to make someone a mass killer?

That's the hardest question. There are those who would argue it's faulty wiring, some kind of genetic defect, or some repeated head trauma. There are others who would say it has more to do with some profound interruption in early childhood that occurs so that a young child never bonds with adults. Either way, they're going to plead insanity.

But they haven't so far, and Kaczynski has refused to take court-ordered psychological tests.

The insanity defense is a last-resort defense, but in this case it's the only possibility. The physical evidence is irrefutable.

How do you think they will argue insanity?

They'll have to show profound suffering as a child. They have to show where it comes from, so they'll have to look for things like abuse, abandonment, neglect, sexual molestation. The question is whether they'll find that without fabricating. My guess is they'll have a very difficult time.

Especially when you see his brother who dropped out, came back in to society and now by all accounts is a moral, mild-mannered social worker.

And here's a factor that people never talk about: Most serial and mass murderers are middle-aged men. If it were caused by early childhood or some genetic factor, why didn't they start killing when they were 12 or 18 or 20? I think there are critical variables in the transitional phase toward adulthood and middle-age and we ignore them.

Such as?

There are many men in this country who are drifters, transients. They have no place to turn. They lack the support systems, the encouragement; they're psychologically on their own. Maybe if they had the right kinds of support when they needed it, they would grow out of the problems they had as youngsters. But instead they make the same mistakes over and over and they begin to drift in and out of jobs from one state to another. I think that explains why states with large numbers of transients and drifters have the largest number of serial killings.

His defense lawyers have said Kaczynski probably suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

That's the other possibility. Often paranoid schizophrenia develops in late adolescence and early adulthood, and they may argue that Kaczynski's psychosis developed in this transitional stage. But even psychosis as a defense, because of a tightening of the standard since the Hinckley case, really doesn't work in federal trials. It's not enough.

What is enough?

Before Hinckley, some sort of mental defect, like psychosis, could absolve someone for responsibility for a criminal act. Now we're back to the basic standard: Does he know the difference between right and wrong? Does he realize what he did is wrong? Could he control his murderous impulse?

Did Kaczynski?

Gosh. I think he understood very well that he was killing human beings not gophers. He may have rationalized his behavior as doing something wonderful for humankind, but that doesn't let him off the hook. Lots of serial killers kill prostitutes and they say they're cleaning the streets of filth. One other thing: The fact that he killed from a distance may indicate that he had a conscience and he couldn't face his victims.

So you don't hold out much chance for a defense insanity plea?

The insanity defense is usually ineffective. It's only attempted in 1 percent of all felony cases, and it's successful in just one-third of those cases. I don't think a jury will buy it. It's very hard to predict, but I would say he's going to be found guilty and he'll get the death penalty.

Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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