Revolutionary suicide

Mad or not, there is a logic to the Unabomber's actions and it can be discerned from the ideas he espouses and writings attributed to him by his family or in the Unabomber Manifesto.

Published January 21, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. --No one knows the true contours of Theodore Kaczynski's psyche. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed Tuesday that he is "competent" to stand trial. The government psychiatrist who examined him diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenia. Judge Garland Burrell Jr., who is presiding over the trial, says he found Kaczynski to be perfectly lucid and sane when he interviewed him.

We don't know yet whether the accused Unabomber will be allowed to defend himself, but we do know how he wants to present himself to a jury: as a revolutionary rather than a psychotic. To understand this, and his struggle to control his own fate, one must look not to his alleged inner turmoil, but to his ideas, and his self-conceived revolutionary identity.

Judging by an essay of Kaczynski's (given to the FBI by his family), he became an acolyte of Jacques Ellul's disparaging theory of technological society early in the 1970s. Apparently, the new disciple set out to exceed the master. Rejecting Ellul's Christian pacifist spirituality, he seems to have embraced the anarchism with which Ellul sometimes flirted, but just as often criticized. Withdrawing to the fringe of society, Kaczynski challenged Ellul's assertion that the freedom of an isolated, hermetic life was not possible in the modern world.

In "Industrial Society and Its Future" (aka "The Unabomber Manifesto"), the Unabomber also challenges Ellul theoretically. For the French thinker, technology was to the modern world what sin was to the traditional world -- an undefeatable barrier between humanity and God. The manifesto underlines the argument that technological society is evil and unfree, but invokes other thinkers to claim that revolutionary action can exploit the system's instabilities to the point of collapse.

In "The Unabomber Manifesto," dedicated partisans of freedom are urged to battle human oppression, which does not come in the iron fist of raw physical coercion so much as the deceptive manipulations of, among other things, psychology. Policemen and soldiers are not the important enemy. The enemy is Dr. Spock and his manual for child rearing, and hell is psychologist B.F. Skinner's Walden II -- a society full of happily unfree drones. Freedom is more like the original Walden, a life of early 19th century radical self-reliance described by Henry David Thoreau.

Kaczynski, if he is the Unabomber, is not as alone as we might think. Historically, a surprising number of groups have embraced self-destructive paths rather than abandon their sense of who they are. At the end of the Old West, an American Indian movement known as the Ghost Dancers persuaded themselves that bullets could not harm them, with predictable results. Bushmen of the Silver Lake area in Southern Africa chose to cease bearing children, slowly dying out rather than be absorbed into the modern world.

Revolutionary patriots differ from these examples only in that they have made a more conscious choice about how they define themselves. We do not have to know the exact shape of an individual psyche in order to understand the implications of such a position.

In court, Theodore Kaczynski was told that he could not force his attorneys to present a political defense instead of asserting "mental defect." His ideas and beliefs would be translated as psychiatric symptoms. Enforcement of this arrangement over his objections meant he was powerless. If Kaczynski wrote "The Unabomber Manifesto," he believes that freedom is defined by one's ability to make independent choices about the goals one pursues and achieves. According to this view, global chaos, massive suffering and personal death are preferable to disempowerment.

Kaczynski is so well read that he may even be aware of the doctrine of "revolutionary suicide" propagated most notably by Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones. It holds that active self-destruction robs the enemy of final victory, and demonstrates to the world one's unyielding dedication to principle. That doctrine impelled the mass suicide and murder of over 900 people at Jonestown.

As I left the courtroom on Jan. 7, the day the judge ruled against Kaczynski's desires, the implications of all this slowly grew clearer. That evening, I asked several friends to consider the plausibility of my fear that Kaczynski would commit suicide during the night. We agreed that my instincts should outweigh the usual standards of professional non-involvement and I should, at the very least, make a pressing inquiry into whether a suicide watch was in force. Not surprisingly, the Federal Marshal's office would not even admit that they knew where the defendant was being held for the night, and no one was answering the phone at the county jail.

When Kaczynski's attempt to kill himself was announced the next day, I was less impressed by my prescience than I was depressed by my impotence. Obviously, though, my sense of powerlessness was less traumatic than Kaczynski's own.

The morning after failing at self-destruction, he asserted his wish to take charge of his own defense. And he even accepted a psychiatric exam as the price of escaping powerlessness, for just a little while longer.

By Scott Corey

Scott Corey is a political scientist specializing in political violence and revolution.

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