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. Those in the West today who endorse these ancient myths and rail against technology and modernity have no intention of actually giving up the comforts of civilization, which they could easily do by migrating to the Third World.
Instead, those there who lack such comforts are literally dying to get to the West. Be that as it may, the fashion of espousing cultural primitivism is the driving force behind much environmental thought, particularly that of the more radical groups such as Earth First!
But a two-bit romanticism is only one of the influences on Kaczynski's noxious ideas. The other is an equally debased Enlightenment belief that reason and science are the only means of finding truth, and that morality is a chimera to be rejected by the cool rationalist. Or as Kaczynski himself put it in his journal, "there was no logical justification for morality."
Morality and spirituality are "cognitively meaningless," expressions of mere illusory emotion. Compassion and conscience are equally meaningless, the result of indoctrination and propaganda on the part of the "system," which uses these fantasies to keep the sheep sheep. But Kaczynski didn't want to be a sheep; he wanted to be a wolf. He had too much rage - against his parents, against his snooty Harvard profs, against his Montana neighbors with their raucous chainsaws and snowmobiles.
At Harvard Kaczynski found a curriculum saturated with the received ideas that would ultimately validate his private hatreds. In literature and philosophy the myth of a horrible modernity was unquestioned orthodoxy, and over in the science departments logical positivism had discarded ethics and morality. Cultural and moral relativism was everywhere, justified by the demand for "value neutrality." All that remained was power and force. The result was what Mr. Chase calls a "Culture of Despair" institutionalized in the curriculum at every level, all overlaid with an inveterate snobbishness that worked like a corrosive on a Midwestern working-class prodigy like Kaczynski.
Mr. Chase's examination of the historical pedigree of these popular cliches about the horrors of the modern world is valuable. Unfortunately, rather than pursuing this history in more detail he veers off into a sensationalistic discussion of a Harvard psychologist, Henry A. Murray, who conducted psychological experiments on undergraduates, including Kaczynski.
According to Mr. Chase, Murray was a bizarre fellow, into transvestitism, sadomaochism, LSD, and speed. He also did work for the defense and intelligence establishments, examining techniques for brainwashing, interrogation, and resisting the same. Mr. Chase spends a lot of time detailing the connections between the psychological establishment and the intelligence agencies, piling up a mass of spooky details to support his thesis that the roots of Kaczynski's murders lie in the Cold War.
However, Mr. Chase has a hard time actually showing how Kaczynski's experience as one of Murray's guinea pigs had anything to do with his later crimes. Kaczynski himself said that the experience - which involved writing a paper expressing one's personal beliefs and then being subjected to a brutal critique - was merely "unpleasant." The fact is, Kaczynski identifies for us the humiliating experience that pushed him over the line: Driven by sexual frustration, he consulted with a psychiatrist about having a sex-change operation, the only way he thought he could touch a woman.
Kaczynski calls this "a major turning point" in his life, one that filled him with a "glorious new hope": that he "could kill someone" and do things "daring, irresponsible or criminal." This seems to me a more promising psychological vein to mine than the adventures of a crank psychologist and the Cold War co-optation of the psychological establishment.
All in all, Mr. Chase's book is a valuable history of what may turn out to be a harbinger of the future: a homegrown terrorism driven by debased myths and shop-worn ideas that nonetheless pack a powerful, emotionally gratifying punch. The war against terrorism has more fronts than we think.
Bruce Thornton is the author of "Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta and History in California."
HARVARD AND THE UNABOMBER: THE EDUCATION OF AN AMERICAN TERRORIST
By Alston Chase
Norton, $26.95, 432 pages, illus…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Sowing Terror at Home; How the Angry Turn Extreme. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: March 16, 2003. Page number: B08. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.