The Common Good
March-April 1998

A Modern Salvation Story

by Joe Nangle | March-April 1998

The drama that unfolded in the arrest and court proceedings of
Theodore Kaczynski deserves serious, even prayerful, reflection.
In part it focuses our attention on that most basic ...

The drama that unfolded in the arrest and court proceedings of Theodore Kaczynski deserves serious, even prayerful, reflection. In part it focuses our attention on that most basic of all communities, the family. While the media mostly treated this case as a titillating show, those who see

the family as the building block of community, indeed of society itself, may find this tragedy holds crucial lessons for all who relate to families– that is, for all of us.

The contours of the case are well known. A strange, reclusive loner leaves enough clues to his identity as the long-sought Unabomber for his younger brother to suspect him and inform the FBI. His arrest and the subsequent exhaustive search of his cabin lead to trial preparations and eventually a surprise guilty plea. In an incredible turnabout, the brother, David, together with their mother, Wanda, appear in court to stand with Theodore and plead for his life.

The cost to brother and mother of this support seems incalculable. The opening scene in court finds David and Wanda weeping side by side in the courtroom as brother and son Theodore strides by ignoring their presence. He has had no contact with David for 12 years or with Wanda for 16. That tableau of the weeping mother and brother, which typifies the entire family tragedy here, lends itself to some profound and, one would hope, instructive questions about the vagaries of family life.

The most compelling of these questions is also the most obvious: How could two siblings turn out so differently? The responsible member of society, David, who had the moral courage to expose his older brother, with the consent and backing of their mother, came out of the same household as the weird, anti-social killer, Theodore.

Was David somehow genetically disposed to place the good of society ahead of family loyalty? And was Theodore programmed to build and dispatch letter bombs that ultimately killed three persons and injured 28 over a period of two decades?

That seems too simple an answer—a question of DNA, or genetics, or some other form of responsibility transfer. The brother who had enough moral sensitivity to forestall further harm to innocent people at the hands of his blood relative acted out of a personal integrity and conviction that cannot be engineered. And the brother who for 20 years worked out schemes to kill people in most impersonal and cowardly ways is at best a severely disturbed individual—and at worst a wicked human being. We are responsible for our actions, with all of their consequences, unless we are quite out of our minds.

(The answer to whether or not David should have gone to the police about his brother seems obvious and not worth serious debate. In stark biblical terms, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, despite our excessive American individualism. There seems no way anyone could have justified the younger Kaczynski’s avoiding his moral duty to defend a much larger good than the protection of his brother.)

ANOTHER REFLECTION on the drama surrounding the Kaczynski family centers on the mother’s and brother’s apparent acceptance of Theodore and their efforts to save him. One could imagine and understand Wanda and David withdrawing from the whole sordid affair in which their son and brother had become enmeshed. After all, they did what was required in reporting Theodore, and he obviously wanted no part of them. They could have let the system do its will.

However, these obviously straightforward and good people chose to face the media frenzy. They were willing to put up with the incessant barrage of cameras, reporters, and a gawking public as they made their daily and very public appearance to support their tragically errant family member and share his humiliation. That support strikes me as heroism.

At the end of the day this mother and younger son will salvage the family name and do an enormous service to this institution, the family, which suffers such serious threats today. The name "Kaczynski" will not finally connote "murderer," "Unabomber," another in the Charles Manson lineage. "Kaczynski" will also bring to mind the names of Wanda and David who saved Theodore himself and society from more of his predations, and stood by him in his hour of disgrace. It’s a wonderful lesson in holding together rightful condemnation and familial tenderness, or, if you will, tough love alongside reconciling love.

One can only pray that Theodore Kaczynski can in the end reach for and grasp the salvation being proffered by his family.

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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