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Sowing Terror at Home; How the Angry Turn Extreme

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

Sowing Terror at Home; How the Angry Turn Extreme


Byline: Bruce Thornton, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The current war against Islamo-fascist terrorism has drowned out for the moment another terrorist movement quietly percolating just out of our collective earshot. The eco-terrorists - those waging war against modern civilization in the name of nature - like the Islamicists are fired by a conviction of their own righteousness so intense that it justifies murder. So far the radical environmentalists' violence has been directed at buildings and property, but given the logic driving those who believe they are unrestrained by morality and law, that will soon change, as the recent murder of Dutch politician Pym Fortun by an animal-rights activists suggests.

Alston Chase's "Harvard and the Unabomber," the story of a murderer who also started with vandalism, is a timely reminder of the bloody consequences that inexorably follow from the ideas of those here at home who, like the Islamicists, have declared war on modernity.

In his book, Mr. Chase tells two stories. The first is the tale of Ted Kaczynski, the brilliant mathematician who murdered three people and injured several others with package-bombs. With fascinating and gripping detail Mr. Chase recounts the murders, the investigation, the capture and trial of Kaczynski, and the story of his life: boyhood in a Chicago suburb, lonely years at Harvard, a stellar postgraduate career at the University of Michigan, a few years as an assistant professor at Berkeley, and finally his semi-reclusive life in a cabin in Montana where he perfected his bombs.

By interleaving quotes from Kaczynski's decoded journal, Mr. Chase lets us hear the murderer's own chilling commentary and creepy satisfaction with the lethality of his bombs: After the murder of Thomas Mosser, Kaczynski commented that the bomb he used "gave a totally satisfactory result."

Equally revealing is Mr. Chase's narrative of the media's failure, once Kaczynski was captured, to understand the full force of his ideas and their origins. Instead, the media created a caricature of a crazy, wild-eyed, unwashed bearded hermit, the product no doubt of a dysfunctional family. That is, a "wilderness eccentric" to be safely dismissed once we were assured he was in custody and no longer a threat.

But Kaczynski didn't live in a wilderness, he wasn't a recluse, he was no more unkempt than his neighbors who spent a lot of time in the woods, and he definitely isn't crazy. In fact, the ideas that drove him to murder are unexceptional, even banal, the received wisdom of many in our society from the universities to popular culture.

The analysis and history of these ideas comprise Mr. Chase's second story. Rather than odd or extreme, Kaczynski's philosophy, as set out in the "Manifesto" he blackmailed the New York Times and Washington Post into publishing, is within the mainstream of neo-romantic complaints against industrialism, technology, and capitalism. Indeed, the "Manifesto" is philosophically very similar to a bestselling work of pop anti-technology petulance, Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance."

The idea that the modern world has alienated humans from a nature we are destroying, that it has subjected humanity to the tyranny of science and Blake's "satanic mills," that we live in an "air-conditioned nightmare" enchaining us in capitalism's "cash nexus"- this idea permeates the world view of those who teach in our colleges and write our textbooks and establish the high-cultural orthodoxy. It is, as Mr. Chase puts it, "the contemporary American creed."

As Mr. Chase also notes, these ideas have a long history, all the way back to the ancient Greeks. The stress of complex civilization creates in many a wish-fulfilling fantasy of a more peaceful, simpler life lived in harmony with nature. The reality, of course, is that life lived in harmony with nature is generally solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

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