Harvard and the Unabomber
November 23, 2006
a review by William P. Meyers

What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than to think about the Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, sitting in the penitentiary, eating his turkey. Like many environmentalists I don't like to think about Ted too much. Not so much because he is a murderer, but because of the appalling lack of taste in who he murdered.

Harvard and the Unabomber, the Education of an American Terrorist by Alston Chase has been out several years now, since 2003. A friend lent me a copy because I was discussing another mutual friend who graduated, like Ted Kaczynski, from Harvard. The book has numerous fascinating facts in it. Though I disagree with most of Mr. Chase's statements of opinion, I find those opinion to at least be very interesting.

The Unabomber, you will remember, kept the FBI enthralled for over a decade with a series of bombings that started off almost prank-like and ended by killing several people. Then the Unabomber promised to stop the bombings if the New York Times would publish his Manifesto. After it was published we became aware that the Unabomber hated technology and also sought to defend the environment. Turned out that the Unabomber had a brother who recognized his writing and turned him into the feds. Then there was a trial; the press and the judge agreed that Ted Kaczynski was insane. Hence no death penalty, hence a life in a cell.

Alston Chase does not agree that Ted was insane, not in the clinical sense, and there his argument is strong. But that is not the key to the book. Alston Chase believes he knows what made Ted into a murderer. The short of it was that Ted was chosen to be an experimental subject in a psychology experiment at Harvard. He hated being in the experiment, but he needed the pay that came with it. It is possible that Alston Chase is right, even though Ted did not start killing until years after the experiment ended.

Alston Chase also hates logical positivism, a modern school of philosophy. If you know as little about logical positivism as you will learn in this book, you will probably hate it too. But along with the downsides that come from over-applying logical positivism to situations that it was not created to deal with, there are some real benefits to logical positivism, and not just in the setting of formal logical analysis. I believe that Alston and Ted both could have benefitted from studying Ludwig Wittgenstein, who began as a logical positivist but grew into the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

A big part of the book is about the development of the field of psychology, which was largely funded by the U.S. national security and spook apparatus. That part of the book is worth reading even if you find the details of the construction of bombs by the Unabomber to be tedious.

The author believes that Ted was not an environmentalist, and was only pretending to be one in the Unabomber manifesto in order to recruit environmentalists into his (imaginary) terrorist organization. That is interesting stuff, to be sure.

Mr. Chase believes that Ted murdered because of his ideology. I think the man just liked bombs, and would have been a murderer for any ideology or cult that he joined.

Mr. Chase points out that Ted is not the only Harvard graduate to murder his fellow man. Here is where you see how limited Alston's ethical thinking is. A half-dozen Harvard grads are named as murderers.

Which leaves out a few thousand. Did no one from Harvard adopt the ideology of American Independence in 1776 and murder a British soldier or two? Did no one from Harvard help massacre American Indians? Did no one from Harvard fight in the Civil War?

What about the atomic bomb? I'm willing to bet that if few Harvard graduates worked on it, a number of their professors helped create it. What about John Fitzgerald Kennedy? Was the Bay of Pigs incident not mass murder, executed under his command, as part of an ideological war?

No, there is no shortage of murdering Harvard guys in history. Ted was not insane. The only way he was atypical was that he acted alone, without rich prep-school buddies and the full force of the government of the United States of America.

Harvard and the Unabomber at Amazon.com