Articles

Unabomber

This terrorist seeks to destroy the notion that human achievement can overcome the tyrannies of nature and chance.

Los Angeles Times , September 25, 1995

Among my husband' souvenirs from graduate school is a memo from Franco Modigliani, who has since won the Nobel prize in economics, telling students and colleagues of a friend's murder by the Red Brigades for the crime of being an economist. It is a reminder that the contemplative life is not without its enemies or its risks.

The Unabomber's manifesto is a similar reminder. Its 35,000 words bought a place in The Washington Post with the blood of scholars.

The tract's contents are familiar: Technology is evil. Nature is good. Villages were virtuous. Cities are abominations. Life would be better without refrigeration.

Its ancestors include a long line of intellectuals, from John Ruskin to the Southern Agrarians to Jeremy Rifkin and Kirkpatrick Sale. Indeed, the manifesto's theme is so common as to be clich├ęd, the fastest, hippest way to get published. Stasis sells. According to the jacket of his latest work, Sale can afford two homes--in Manhattan and Cold Spring, New York. He defends the bomber's "crucial message," though not his methods or his writing style. "It is a statement of a rational and serious man," Sale writes in The Nation.

It is, in fact, the statement of a monster--a murderer, yes, but more than that. A murderer for a monstrous cause.

The Unabomber is a terrorist, not "a respected environmentalist and historian" as The New Yorker describes Sale. And terrorists don't have to hide their full agendas.

The Unabomber doesn't simply attack computers or telephones or even technology in general. He doesn't indulge in Utne Reader-style fantasies, dreaming of a land without malls or automobiles but with plenty of newspapers and croissants. He does not even content himself with Salesian musings on the wonders of paleolithic life, the good old days when people died at 32.5 years old.

He attacks, in scathing terms, the very pursuit of knowledge. He is at war with science itself.

"As for 'curiosity,' that notion is simply absurd," he writes. "Most scientists work on highly specialized problems that are not the object of any normal curiosity." Pursuing answers to esoteric puzzles, such as "the properties of isopropyltrimethylmethane" or "the appropriate classification of a new species of beetle," he writes, is merely a "surrogate activity," the sort of thing people do when they need not scrape a living from the ground. Scientists, complains the bomber, "work mainly for the fulfillment they get out of the work itself."

If I were the FBI, I'd pay close attention to this passage, so different is its specificity from the vague anti-specialization sentiments found in most such tracts. The Unabomber knows exactly what he hates, what he wants to destroy. He dreams of a day when "surviving technical books would be few and scattered."

He knows--as Sale and Rifkin know, as Christopher Lasch and E.F. Schumacher knew--that to be at war with modernity, at war with progress, at war with technology is not just to attack gadgets or advertising or even capitalism itself. It is to attack the life of the mind, the idea that human beings can, or should, understand the universe. It is to seek to destroy the notion that life can improve, that the tyrannies of nature can be overcome. It is to embrace the fatalism that declares disease and disaster the will of God, pain and ignorance the fate of man.

Near the end of Rebels Against the Future, Sale suggests that "a movement of resistance" has arisen to take up a challenge from philosopher George Grant: "'The darkness which envelops the Western world because of its long dedication to the overcoming of chance'--by which he means the triumph of the scientific mind and its industrial constructs--'is just a fact....The job of thought in our time is to bring into the light that darkness as darkness.'"

That is just what the Unabomber is seeking to do, to define as darkness--as evil--the human achievement that defies chance. His is the violent arm of Sale's movement of resistance.

To agree with the philosophical position of a terrorist is certainly not to endorse terrorism. To agree with the philosophical position of this terrorist, however, is to declare war on the hope and glory of the human race.