For weeks this spring I was obsessed with the (alleged) Unabomber. I scoured the daily stories about him in the paper, and found myself checking all those indistinguishable TV newsmagazine shows just for Unabomber features. The Kaczynski story has become for me one of those odd little items in our history that speaks volumes about our culture and our country.
The wise guys at Time mag were calling the story “The Unabomber Saga,” and I think I know why: It has family conflicts worthy of a Greek tragedy, played out under the Big Sky of Montana and on the frontiers of counter-culturalist ideology.
Most of the mass media Unabomber coverage that gets beyond the contents of Kaczynski’s cabin has tended to focus on the brother vs. brother—Cain and Abel—aspect of the story. The tale of the accused Ted Kaczynski and the accuser, brother David, certainly holds the material for a grand American novel or film. It is a post-industrial East of Eden, or Dallas with introspective intellectuals instead of oil barons. Cross all that with strong elements of The Fugitive. (Richard Kimball’s family never ratted him out. Were they right?)
This understandable fascination with the family story has so far obscured the strong and twisted ideological undercurrents of the Unabomber story. (That may change when or if Kaczynski, the putative manifesto author, speaks for himself at trial.) The only serious attempt at drawing these kinds of connections came when a variety of right-wing flacks smelled the opportunity to paint the alleged Unabomber in shades of Green. When Earth First! literature supposedly turned up in the Unashack, a round of stories labeled the Unabomber an eco-terrorist—some even hinting at a broader eco- conspiracy.
None of those stories panned out. And they won’t. As Alexander Cockburn made clear in a recent media column in The Nation, those stories were all the work of Hard Right ideologues seeking payback for the damage the Right suffered after the Oklahoma City bombing. “We’ve got McVeigh, but they’ve got Kaczynski” was the intended message.
With Timothy McVeigh the ideological lineage went from the Michigan Militia to the National Rifle Association (NRA), which could not deny harboring militia-men among its members. With Kaczynski the connection runs, somehow, from Earth First! (and points beyond) back to everyone from the cozy corporate liberals at the Sierra Club to the eco-Gandhians at Greenpeace. On its face this parallel is disproportionate since the NRA is at the very mainstream heart of the conservative movement in America and Earth First!, which would never blow up anybody, is at the very far fringe of environmentalism.
BUT THE TRUTH is even stranger than that. The truth seems to be that Kaczynski would not, and could not, affiliate himself with any of his fellow humans on any basis. He could not even relate to his immediate family, much less any political group, however small or eccentric.
At the very American heart of this Unabomber story is the alleged perpetrator’s radical withdrawal from all vestiges of human community. Kaczynski lived an outsized and melodramatic version of a cultural strategy that has defined American men for centuries. Like Huck Finn, he fled the civilizing influences of community and “lit out for the territory.” The supposed Unabomber, out there chasing rabbits and blowing up flatlanders, is nothing more or less than our ultimate rugged individualist.
Of course for Kaczynski this path was not an intellectual choice but an inner compulsion. Some of the news reports indicate that this withdrawal from society reaches all the way back to his isolation in a hospital at the age of 6 months. After weeks without human contact, little Ted emerged as a listless infant. He grew into a sullen and withdrawn child. And then he became a man so afraid of human contact that he lived several miles out from nowhere and may have delivered even his vengeance via the impersonal medium of the mail.
At one level this is the sad story of one man’s damaged psyche. But the radical individualism so honored by American cultural traditions provided the alleged Unabomber with the resources to turn his pathology into an ideology, to style himself a self-employed mercenary and the hero of his own frontier epic.
Kaczynski’s ideology and supposed actions were a dramatization of his psychic dislocation. But his psychic dislocation was ideal preparation for becoming one of the purest products of this fearful and divided land.
In America, radical individualism is the real ideology that cuts across all the make-believe lines of our politics. Radical individualism is the beating heart of the pro-abortion movement and the pro-gun lobbies. It fuels the drives for gay rights and for environmental deregulation. Radical individualism inspires the opponents of public school prayer and the enemies of public school funding.
In every one of these cases, if we look below the surface, we’ll find a rejection of collective obligations or concerns and a core notion that holds, “I’ve got to be me and forget about you.” That is the American credo as it has devolved at the end of this century. God help us if we can’t find a way to reconnect.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.