Academic journal article Conradiana

Kaczynski, Conrad, and Terrorism

Academic journal article Conradiana

Kaczynski, Conrad, and Terrorism

Article excerpt

"1907 Conrad Novel May Have Inspired Unabomb Suspect" Front-page headline, The Washington Post, July 9, 1996

I confess that in my eyes the story [The Secret A gent] is a fairly successful (and sincere) piece of ironic treatment applied to a special subject-a sensational subject if one likes to call it so. And it is based on the inside knowledge of a certain event in the history of active anarchism. But otherwise it is purely a work of imagination. It has no social or philosophical intention. It is, I humbly hope, not devoid of artistic value. It may even have some moral significance. (Emphasis by Conrad in original) Joseph Conrad, Letter to Algernon Methuen. November 7, 1906. (1)

It is not common for canonical literary works, published nearly ninety years earlier, to be mentioned in front-page headlines about suspected terrorists. But the novel in question, The Secret Agent, is not exactly a typical canonical work; and Theodore J. Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber and "FC" as he signed his letters to the media, is not a typical terrorist. A Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan who was briefly an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Kaczynski is a far more proficient bomb-maker than Martial Bourdin, who destroyed himself in the 1894 Greenwich explosion that was the starting point for Conrad's novel. Between 1978 and 1995 his home-made bombs injured twenty-three people and killed three persons--Hugh Scrutton, a Sacramento computer store owner, Thomas Mosser, a New Jersey advertising executive, and Gilbert Murray, an official of the California Forestry Association. Kaczynski tried and failed to blowup an airliner in 1 979, and he caused a major panic with a "prank" threat to destroy an airliner in June of 1995. During that same summer he also manipulated the news media so that The Washington Post, with the cooperation of the New York Times, published his 35,000-word Manifesto attacking technology, science, and "Industrial Society," first on the Post's own pages and then on the internet. There the Manifesto came to the attention of David Kaczynski who notified the FBI that certain ideas in "Industrial Society" were disturbingly similar to statements in letters he had received from his brother who was living in a 10x12 cabin in Montana--until the FBI arrested him in April, 1996. Indicted for murder and threatened with a possible death penalty and a prolonged trial in which he might have been portrayed as a delusional paranoid schizophrenic, Kaczynski demonstrated such a formidable talent for disrupting the American legal system by quarreling with his lawyers and attempting to commit suicide, that the New York Times called hi s trial a "travesty" and a "legal farce"; and the Justice Department accepted a plea bargain in which Kaczynski pleaded guilty and avoided the death penalty by accepting life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or appeal. (2)

As Kaczynski's Manifesto and letters to the media reveal, he was neither a conventional terrorist with an extreme but relatively specific political agenda, nor a "mad loner" with a grudge against particular persons or institutions. Instead, he was a well-read autodidact with substantial intellectual pretensions and a grandiose melange of ideas and plans for a revolution that would destroy "Industrial Society" so that humanity would return to its "primitive," pretechnological condition. Much of his thinking seems to have been derived from a medley of sources such as pop psychology (his theories about the "power process"), radical individualism (his attacks on "leftism"), and romantic or Luddite neo-primitivism (his diatribes against technology). However, mixed in with these ideas in the two-hundred-and-thirty-two paragraphs of his Manifesto, there were statements similar enough to the beliefs and attitudes of two characters in The Secret Agent--the diplomat Vladimir and the bomb-making Professor whom Conrad c alled the "perfect anarchist" --that FBI agents had begun reading The Secret Agent carefully even before Kaczynski was identified as a suspect, and the agency had consulted a number of Conrad scholars in the hopes of discovering more about the Unabomber's mentality and identity (Kovaleski A6). …

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