For almost 20 years starting in 1978, the United States was under attack from an unknown terrorist. During that time the man would kill three people and injury 23 more in a series of attacks. His preferred weapon was a bomb sent through the US mail.
This unknown man, most famous known as the Unabomber from his pattern of targeting “UN”iversities and “A”irports, would only be caught in 1996 after a coincidental tip off from a relative. And when he was caught, it became clear why he had evaded capture for so long.
Ted Kaczynski was not only a recluse, hidden away in the forests of Montana where he could build his bombs without fear of being noticed. He was also a Harvard graduate, a recipient of a first class education. To the FBI he didn’t fit the profile of a terrorist at all.
Over the months and years after his capture details began to emerge of an experiment that Kaczynski had been involved in while at Harvard, which might go some way towards explaining his self-isolation, his hostility and the views that had driven him to kill. You see, while at Harvard Ted Kaczynski had been the victim of a crime.
As the Unabomber, Kaczynski sent personally constructed package bombs to scientists, academicians and others over a period of seventeen years. Kaczynski was difficult to trace because he built untraceable bombs and sent them to seemingly random people over a long period of time.
He even used false clues to throw the investigators off their tracks. His targets were seemingly unconnected, only chosen because of Kaczynski’s loosely defined hatred of technology and environmental destruction.
One of the reasons why Kaczynski was so difficult to trace was that he lived in Great Falls, Montana as a hermit in his later life. No one would doubt a recluse living in the mountains who had very limited contact with human civilization.
But before Kaczynski became a recluse and a murderer, he was a very gifted mathematician and professor. The usual profiling is that Kaczynski developed over time into a schizophrenic, mentally ill person who wanted to kill people to fit his own view. This is reductive at best.
One has to understand what the Unabomber experienced at Harvard to get a view of how he became a serial bomber and killer. Kaczynski may well have been mentally unwell, but the important question to ask is “why?”
Many of his contemporaries had corresponded with him after he was given a life sentence in 1998. In his correspondence, he came across as a charming and intelligent person. In those letters that he would send to his pen friends, he would talk about the “Murray experiments” he had undergone and hinted that there was something sinister that happened during those experiments.
For example, he shared that the psychologists of the Murray experiments were advised not to talk with the defense team for Kaczynski. The Murray experiment had something to hide, and that could have triggered Kaczynski’s evolution into a serial bomber.
People started to ask questions about this Murray experiment, and it was found that the Murray experiment was designed to observe the reaction of people to stress. Student volunteers were put into a lot of intensive interrogation sessions, which Kaczynski termed as personally abusive and designed to inflict emotional damage.
Kaczynski had previously been encouraged to pursue his own interests, a ruse by the experiment to bolster his confidence so the abuse he would then receive would seem more marked. He was then subject to public ridicule, belittlement and mockery through a series of interrogations,
It is believed the interrogations could have changed the disposition of the students by attacking their ideals and beliefs. Certainly the Unabomber blamed these experiments for damaging his sense of social interaction, creating an isolation which would have driven him to radicalization.
During his trial, the Unabomber was analyzed by a battery of psychologists, who reached the conclusion that he believed that society in general was bad and that he felt compelled to attack and disrupt it wherever he could. The construction of bombs and trying to kill people was a sign of this twisted rebellion.
He also believed that almost everyone he talked to, operating within society, could not be trusted, even including his own family. This deep distrust in people seems to have sprung from these experiments performed on him, which left him unwilling to make contacts in the fear that he would suffer more emotional abuse.
All this drove him to become a recluse and start his campaign of bombing. These two belief systems converged during Kaczynski’s time at Harvard. The experiments that happened with him at Harvard could have had a huge impact on his mind.
- Jean-Pierre Cherid: The Man Who Would Kill de Gaulle
- The Bat Bombs of WWII: Presidentially Approved, Totally Crazy?
He had experienced anger about his family and living conditions since his childhood. The experiences at Harvard only went on to consolidate the whole belief system that led to the two-decade-long bombings from Unabomber.
The early victims of his bombings were from universities and airlines. His first bombing was on May 26, 1978, when the bomb injured a North-western University public-safety officer.
The last bombing that Unabomber carried out was April 24, 1995, when his bomb killed the president of the California Forestry Association. Although he was carrying out the bombings, he never let it out that he was doing them and what his beliefs were behind them.
How was the Unabomber Caught?
It was only towards the end of his bombing spree in 1995 that Kaczynski started writing about his bombings in newspapers and magazines. Similarly, he also wrote to a victim before bombing him. All of this was done anonymously.
However, revealing his beliefs and thinking in this way was to be the downfall of the Unabomber. Kaczynski’s brother David recognized the writing style and ideas from his “manifesto” that he had published, and helped the FBI track down Theodore Kaczynski, catching him on April 3, 1996.
His defense counsel proposed that he declare that he was insane, and his philosophy was nothing more than ramblings from the imagination of a madman. However, Kaczynski did not want that to happen. He, therefore, pleaded guilty to thirteen bombing offences and the killing of three men. In total, he pleaded guilty to sixteen bombings from 1978 to 1995. On May 4, 1998, he was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Kaczynski believed in his ideas and wanted people to also believe in them. It is because of this that he gave up his freedom and took up a life sentence, preferring an imprisoned life over being called insane and having his manifesto entirely dismissed.
As a former mathematician and Harvard Alumni, Kaczynski wanted to gain recognition and fame as the most intelligent serial bomber. If it had not been for his 35,000-word essay on his beliefs and motives, the Unabomber would not have been caught. The case of Unabomber was baffling in the way that even people of his family had no inklings of how dangerous a killer he was.
Top Image: Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, made references to the damaging Murray experiments after his arrest. Source: FBI / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
The Atlantic, 2000. Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/06/harvard-and-the-making-of-the-unabomber/378239/
FBI, 2022. The Unabomber. Available at: https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/unabomber
Crime Museum, 2022. Ted Kaczynski: The Unabomber. Available At https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/terrorism/ted-kaczynski-the-unabomber/