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II: Catch and Release Episode 2

II: Catch and Release

· 10:16


CONTENT WARNING: This podcast contains description of murder, discussion on mass murder and terrorism, strong language, and discussion of discrimination against transgender individuals. Listener discretion is advised.

MMFW: What do you get when you mix Harvard, homemade bombs, and a deep-seated fear of technological advancement?

JKW: A serial killer. Or, an oversimplification. This is the story of a Harvard graduate. A serial bomber. And the audience that watched him.

MMFW: His name is Ted Kazcynski. The Unabomber.

JKW: I’m Jem Williams.

MMFW: And I’m Maya Wilson. And this is: The Man, The Myth, and The Manifesto.

JKW: In September 1995, after 17 years of a terrifying bombing campaign, Ted was ready to tell the world why he did it. The political message behind his violence.

MMFW: In 1995, the bombings weren’t like anything the United States had seen before. The Unabomber was one of the first in a wave of domestic terrorist attacks. This was before the Oklahoma City Bomber in 1995, the Columbine shooting in 1999. Today, these attacks are commonplace. Back in the ’90s, they weren’t. Though the public was closely following Unabomber’s attacks, Donald E. Graham ’66, the former publisher of the Washington Post, wasn’t particularly interested.

“And then, one morning, sitting in my office at the Washington Post at 8 in the morning, I got a call from Bob Bucknam at the FBI.”

JKW: Bucknam had reason to believe there was a package in the Post mailroom from the Unabomber. There was an identical package sent to the New York Times. When Bucknam requested to take custody of it, Graham didn’t object.

MMFW: At this point, the Unabomber was the most energy-intensive case the FBI had ever seen. 125 people were working on it. And despite having no shortage of physical evidence — the bombs themselves, the letters that accompanied them — they had no leads, only red herrings. After 17 years, they were no closer to catching the killer. The FBI was stumped.

JKW: The FBI collected the package, and they dusted it for fingerprints. But this parcel didn’t contain a bomb. It contained a 35,000-word essay, “Industrial Society and Its Future.” Also in the package was a warning. Either the Times or the Post had 90 days to publish what would soon be known as the Unabomber Manifesto. Or else, the bombings would continue.

MMFW: On its own, the essay wasn’t newsworthy — it was at times rambling and borderline incoherent. The Manifesto railed against the advancements of industrial society, modern leftists and environmental degradation. It championed anarcho-primitivism, a branch of anarchism that emphasizes a return to “the natural world.” Over and over again, the Manifesto says one thing: the revolution “may or may not” require violence.

“It tried to make perfect sense out of a world that doesn’t make perfect sense.”

JKW: That’s Graham. But they couldn’t run the risk of someone else dying. And more importantly, they thought someone might read the essay and recognize the writer through their voice. Maybe the Unabomber had just identified himself.

MMFW: And since the Post’s circulation was slightly smaller than the Times’, it would be cheaper if printed in their regular distribution than the Times’.

“We didn’t want to spend one more dollar on the son of a bitch than we had to.”

Over a series of meetings with the FBI, Attorney General Janet Reno, and first amendment lawyers and top editors at both publications, the Post decided to publish.

Here’s a part of the statement that Graham and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., then publisher of the New York Times, put out alongside the manifesto.

“From the beginning, the two newspapers have consulted closely on the issue of whether to publish under the threat of violence. We have also consulted law enforcement officials.”

“Both the attorney general and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have now recommended that we print this document for public safety reasons, and we have agreed to do so.”

“They basically broke journalistic rules to give a voice to a terrorist because they thought it might save lives. And it turned out they were right.”

JKW: But they couldn’t see into the future. They couldn’t predict the kind of notoriety the Manifesto would endow Ted with for the rest of his life. They couldn’t predict that 20 years down the line, the Manifesto would grab the attention of ecofascist movements, of young men in dark corners of the internet, and of bored women fantasizing about corresponding with a serial killer.

JKW: To Graham, this continued interest in the Unabomber Manifesto comes as a shock.

“I wasn’t aware that there were people who thought Ted Kaczynski was anything but a lunatic.”

MMFW: The Manifesto came back into the public imagination after the Discovery Channel released “Manhunt Unabomber” as a Discovery Original Series in 2017. It spurred a fascination among young people known as the pine tree community. They identify one another through pine tree emojis and profile pictures of Ted. From across the extremes of the political spectrum, they come together to talk about their admiration for his ideas and their fear of how his words have rung true.

JKW: Jake Hanrahan is a terrorism journalist and founder of the media company Popular Front — and has spent a lot of time in the scariest parts of the internet. He spent over a year in conversation with a few young Kaczysnki fans in the pine tree community. These were people who sent Ted birthday cards…

“They went over his writings with a fine tooth comb, you know.”

JKW: and memorized the entire Manifesto, word for word..

“Like line six, page four, you could probably quote, You know what I mean?”

“Honestly, most of our conversations were me arguing with them saying how, yes, Kaczynski was right about a lot of things. But actually, he was just a fucking narcissist.”

MMFW: Some of the pine trees seem more committed to violence; others, less so. Hanrahan says that increased interest in violence doesn’t necessarily translate into being increasingly violent.

“I’ve heard worse in a Call of Duty lobby than I’ve ever heard from any of these guys in pine trees.”

JKW: What’s most clear from Hanrahan’s exploration of this community is that the internet — the very thing that grew this strain of Kaczynski-ism — is also the thing Ted hates most.

MMFW: Around the darkest corners of the internet, pine tree communities have taken root, moved by Ted’s words. But there are Kaczynski sympathizers in plain sight as well. Kaczynski has six books currently available for purchase on Amazon — mostly different iterations of the Manifesto. They have thousands of reviews and an average rating of about four stars. The comments are pretty sympathetic.

JKW: But Ted’s ideas in the Manifesto aren’t original. In fact, anything but. He draws from anti-technology thinkers before him: Jacques Ellul, Martin Heidegger, Jurgen Habermas, to just name a few.

MMFW: And he’s not known for these ideas specifically, he’s known for the violence he backed them up with. It’s the violence that gave his one-man war all its power.

JKW: Anti-tech and environmentalist movements have a long and complicated history. It extends well before and beyond the Unabomber. His ideas are trite and overdone, so why cite him instead of the people he’s pulling from? Is it because they didn’t kill people?

MMFW: In Ted’s author description on his Amazon page, his work is lauded for critiquing “the global ‘techno-industrial system’” and his “life-long ambition of living an autonomous and self-sufficient life off the land, which he did for twenty-five years.” It’s not until the last paragraph that the other shoe drops and it’s revealed that he’s been in solitary confinement since 1998 for “a long-term violent campaign he staged to call worldwide attention to the colossal dangers inherent in technological growth.”

JKW: We don’t know if Ted wrote this author description himself, or if it was his publisher, or someone working for Amazon. He very well might have. But whether it was him or someone else, he somehow got to maintain his authorial autonomy, and put his ideas first.

MMFW: This brings us back to the moment the Manifesto was published. Graham Macklin is an academic and journalist who studies extremism. Here’s him talking about the Post’s decision to publish:

“I suppose you have to weigh the two things in the balance: the short-term gain of having captured him, downstream from that you have these manifestos being cited all the time and kind of more broadly disseminated out there.”

“I don’t know what the editors of the Post and all the rest of it think about that decision now. I’d be very interested to know.”

JKW: And we do know – Graham could’ve never predicted any of this. And Ted warned us against the technology that enabled all of it. Let’s consider the irony that his book is for sale, of all places, on Amazon.

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