The Unabomber and the Norwegian mass murderer

Theodore Kaczynski photographed from a television screenImage copyright

A recent legal wrangle about the human rights of a mass killer has raised questions about the right to advocate violence. Benjamin Ramm sees parallels with the case of the Unabomber, a man who has fascinated America for decades.

It arrived, quite unexpectedly, in a nondescript envelope with carefully inscribed childlike handwriting. The name of the sender, listed in the top left-hand corner, immediately caught my eye: Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, had sent me a letter.

During a 17-year campaign of terror, Kaczynski placed or posted 16 home-made bombs, which killed three people and injured 23. The FBI gave him a pseudonym: UNAbomber – a reference to the universities and airlines he targeted.

For years, investigators had few clues to go on, as the bomber meticulously concealed his identity. He left only a signature carved inside a bomb – FC, later revealed to stand for “Freedom Club”.

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Theodore Kaczynski’s letter to Benjamin Ramm

But in 1995, the year before he was arrested, America’s two most prestigious newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times, agreed to publish his anonymous 35,000-word manifesto, under the threat of further violence. In it he called for the destruction of the “industrial-technological system”, which in his view robbed individuals of their freedom.

I had written to Kaczynski, now serving eight life sentences at a high security prison in Colorado, after interviewing key figures in this story: his victims, his only brother (who tipped off the FBI after reading the manifesto), and the former publisher of the Washington Post. Kaczynski no longer grants media interviews, but communicates with various “penpals” – an extraordinary correspondence now archived in the library of the University of Michigan, where Kaczynski gained his PhD in mathematics.

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I asked Kaczynski whether he felt any contrition for his acts: in response, he directed me to an essay he had written on morality, arguing that it is a tool of oppression employed by “the system”. He has displayed no remorse or sympathy for his victims, and has even taunted some of those he maimed. And he continues to justify the use of violence for political ends.

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