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Our Half-Serious Sympathy for the Unabomber

Both leftists and right-wingers are prone to edgy endorsements of an unrepentant terrorist

Although Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, killed three people and injured 23 others with a series of homemade explosive devices, the core of his stated philosophy is hard to dismiss out of hand. The manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” lays out an exhaustive case against technological progress, which he viewed as catastrophic for humanity. In hardcore Luddite rhetoric, Kaczynski argued that we end up serving our inventions rather than the other way around.

That opinion hasn’t just garnered academic interest since newspapers published the document in 1995, a year before Kaczynski was arrested — it’s also resonated. “The iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right,” a 2017 Chicago Tribune column declares, with the author nonetheless careful to separate Kaczynski’s analysis from his ultimate plan of action. Ironically, you can find posts all over the internet agreeing with the Unabomber’s anti-industrial primitivism, to varying degrees of seriousness, and it often feels as if the web itself has given us reasons to admire his contempt for the digital economy. What sane person could hear Mark Zuckerberg’s pitch for the Metaverse and not experience a pang of horror at where civilization is headed? The result: Memes that inch toward outright glorification of a terrorist. Any objectionable new product, trend or tweet can become someone’s path to getting “Ted-pilled.”  

In recent years, semi-earnest veneration of the Unabomber has been fashionable among the “dirtbag left,” a faction that relishes the shock value of making the disgruntled Kaczynski a mascot for anti-corporate and environment-conscious revolution. But “Uncle Ted,” as he’s affectionately known on 4chan’s alt-right /pol/ board, is more representative of a nihilism that crosses ideologies: His ecological themes have trickled down to the writings of the racist gunmen responsible for the El Paso and Christchurch massacres, while Fjotolf Hansen, formerly Anders Breivik, the Islamophobic white nationalist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, modeled his own manifesto on Kaczynski’s. Indeed, you can find images that show Kaczynski covering all quadrants of a political compass.

All Kaczynski worship, however, rests on oversimplification. For one thing, he railed against both left- and right-leaning ideologies, frustrating any claim that either side might make to his legacy. And while he’s often described as targeting those he saw as instrumental in technological advancement, the reality is he picked his victims somewhat randomly, and several times killed or maimed a person he had not directly selected for harm. If anything, the bombs were a systematic attempt not to derail industry but to get the manifesto out to a massive audience — and on that score, he can certainly claim success, with this positive content the undeniable proof of his long-term influence. 

Since his imprisonment, Kaczynski has continued to write, meanwhile enjoying the assistance of countless readers in repackaging and republishing his extant propaganda. Currently, a few hobbyists are trying to collaboratively edit “Truth Versus Lies,” a 165,000-word document he produced at the time of his sentencing to challenge the account of his criminal activity given by the government and the media. The project’s goals include: “Make a bunch of free formats available like epub, pdf & word,” and “put it on Amazon so hard copies can be printed and delivered for cheap.”      

We have a historical interest in the Unabomber’s copious notes toward bloody rebellion. All the same, they remain dangerous as exactly that — theoretical justifications for a general violence that he seemed committed to either way. The aura of alienated genius (one criminologist famously labeled him “the most intellectual serial killer the nation has ever produced”) is enticing to anyone inclined to reject the dystopian promises of Silicon Valley or favor radical response to climate change, while it suits the racist eco-fascists and seething misogynists in need of a cerebral text to legitimize the baser hatred that truly drives their agenda. As the rich grow richer, the planet gets hotter and polarization turns increasingly extreme, even the tongue-in-cheek endorsements of Kaczynski’s methods have a sincere edge to them, the subtext of “haha just kidding… unless?”         

At the end of the day, Kaczynski’s masterstroke was a curiously modern one: personal branding. He managed to sow the narrative that, whether or not you condone it, he only killed because of a higher moral conviction (as opposed to homicidal, narcissistic rage) and that his retreat into the wilderness of Montana was aspirational idyll (instead of an inability to cope with other human beings). Our mistake, in shitposts about or good-faith engagement with Kaczynski’s purported rationale, is to reaffirm that bogus cover story. What if “getting away with murder” didn’t mean evading capture, but having the next generations whitewash your reign of terror? All he did was inflict pain and create a blueprint for more. None of those bombs brought us any closer to renouncing science and returning to nature, nor were they meant to. 

Almost 80 years old today, serving eight consecutive life sentences — he listed this under “awards” in the Harvard alumni report for the 50th reunion of his graduating class — Kaczynski is unlikely to be with us much longer. We might have the common sense to deny him a hero’s burial.