Not just a degree but despair, damage and death, too

August 1, 2003

Not everyone is enriched by US higher education. Alston Chase reveals how Theodore Kaczynski's brutal experiences at Harvard helped turn him into the Unabomber.

Last spring, an article appeared in the publication Green Anarchy written by someone the editors called a "prisoner of war". Titled "Hit where it hurts!", it urged readers to "eliminate the entire techno-industrial system".

The article caused consternation among officials at the maximum-security penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, known as "Supermax". For the author was, and still is, an inmate there: Theodore John Kaczynski, certified genius, Harvard University graduate, former University of California, Berkeley mathematics professor, wilderness recluse and convicted murderer known as "the Unabomber".

From 1978 to 1995, Kaczynski conducted a campaign of terror against what he called "technological society" - mailing or planting 16 bombs that killed three people and injured 23 others. In May 1998, he was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Supermax. Writing for publication under one's own name is forbidden there, but Kaczynski got his article out.

The feat proved that he remains a player in anti-globalisation and radical environmentalist circles. The man one forensic psychiatrist described as "the most intellectual serial killer the nation has ever produced", is America's own terrorist, espousing an ideology of antipathy to western industrial culture that is shared by many disaffected activists and terrorists worldwide.

Kaczynski, the eldest son of second-generation working-class Poles, grew up in suburban Chicago. A true polymath, he excelled in every academic field.

But pushed hard academically, he also became increasingly lonely. Kaczynski matriculated at Harvard in 1958 aged 16 and graduated four years later. By 1967, he had earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Michigan, winning a prize for the most outstanding dissertation. When Kaczynski accepted a position as assistant professor of mathematics at Berkeley, he seemed on his way to a stellar scholarly career.

Then, in the spring of 1969, he abruptly resigned and began searching for a place in the wilderness. In 1971, he purchased land near Lincoln, Montana, and built a small cabin. Within seven years, he had launched his war on industrial society.

Dubbed "the Unabomber" by the FBI because his early victims were associated with universities or airlines, Kaczynski's increasingly lethal campaign of terrorism began on May 26 1978, when his first, crude bomb slightly injured a public safety officer at Northwestern University, Illinois. It culminated on April 24 1995, when a sophisticated device killed Gilbert Murray, the president of the California Forestry Association.

Until the early 1990s, however, Kaczynski sent or placed his bombs without explanation. Then he began to write to various publications and individuals under the pseudonym "FC". And in June 1995, he sent a 35,000-word essay titled "Industrial Society and its Future" to three US publications. He promised The New York Times and The Washington Post that "if the enclosed manuscript is published reasonably soon and receives wide public exposure, we will permanently desist from terrorism".

In September, The Washington Post published the essay. A month later, Ted's brother, David, recognised his brother as the author and told the authorities. On April 3 1996, Kaczynski was arrested at the door to his cabin. In 1997, he was put on trial.

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences," Kaczynski's essay begins, "have been a disaster for the human race." They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature.

"The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behaviour that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system."

By "technology", Kaczynski meant not machinery but systems of knowledge without which the institutions of modern industrial society cannot function. And, he suggested, although such fields may have been originally intended to increase knowledge or improve standards of living, they are now ends in themselves. Worse, some fields, such as psychology, serve primarily to ensure that people conform to the system. Because industrial society regards as "sickness" any mode of thought or action that is inconvenient for the system, the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to it is seen as a "cure" and therefore good.

Because the system destroys liberty and threatens humanity's survival, it cannot be reformed, Kaczynski concludes. Instead, it must be destroyed. In its place he would restore "wild nature", which, he explains, is the antithesis of technology.

Kaczynski killed for this philosophy. So understanding his transformation into the Unabomber requires not merely exploring his psychological history, but also his first encounter with the ideas that motivated him. And this encounter took place at Harvard.

For more than 150 years, Harvard had been dedicated to what might be called the religion of reason - the idea that moral truth rested on objective, rational foundations. By the time Kaczynski arrived at Harvard, however, few faculty members still believed in an objective moral law. The religion of reason had given way to what could be called the culture of despair.

All Harvard freshmen in the 1950s, including Kaczynski (and me), were immersed in what educators described as "general education", or "Gen Ed".

Part of nationwide reform, this curriculum sought to inculcate "shared values" among students through instruction in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and to promote - as President Harry Truman's Commission on Higher Education expressed it in 1946 - "a code of behaviour based on ethical principles consistent with democratic ideals".

The locus classicus of Gen Ed was a 1945 Harvard publication known as the Redbook for the colour of its cover. In 1943, in his charge to the committee that would produce this document, Harvard's president, James B. Conant, wrote: "Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall far short of the ideal. The student in high school, in college and in graduate school must be concerned, in part at least, with the words 'right' and 'wrong' in both the ethical and mathematical sense."

This suggestion was a natural reaction to recent events. The second world war had convinced many of the need to reaffirm democratic values. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made scholars see how science and technology, not guided by moral purpose, might destroy the world. The cold war had just begun and threatened global nuclear annihilation.

Yet although the name "Gen Ed" caught on, the philosophy behind it did not.

While some of Harvard's reformers feared the unrestrained pursuit of science, few believed the alternatives to it. As they no longer accepted that moral laws rested on reason, they could not seek to "inculcate common moral standards".

So the Redbook committee waffled, and its recommendations were subverted by the people assigned to teach it. Rather than inculcate values, most professors sought to undermine them. Soon the commandment "Thou shalt not utter a value judgment" became the mantra for Harvard freshmen.

Superficially, this message of scholarly objectivity appeared an optimistic one. It taught that reason was a liberating force and faith mere superstition. Science alone would eventually produce a complete understanding of nature.

But it carried a more disturbing implication: that all the accumulated non-scientific knowledge, including the great religions and philosophies of the past, had been at best merely expressions of "cultural mores" and at worst "lacked cognitive content". Science seemed to paint a picture of a world in which few would want to live - a sanitary place with no dark corners, no mystery, no past and no meaning.

Hence, Gen Ed delivered to those of us who were undergraduates in that time a double whammy of pessimism. From humanists, we learnt that science threatens civilisation. From scientists, we learnt that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there is no hope. Gen Ed had created what would become a permanent fixture at Harvard and throughout much of academe: the culture of despair.

That culture was not all that Harvard would inflict on Kaczynski. He recalls that he was "talked or pressured into participating" in a three-year series of experiments conducted by the prestigious Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray. "It was," Kaczynski added, "a highly unpleasant experience."

It was intended to be so. As Murray put it, this experiment was designed to explore the degree of anxiety and disintegration in student subjects. And Kaczynski was the student who disintegrated most.

The experiments were in part a product of the cold war. As a former lieutenant colonel with the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA), Murray had devised what he called a "grilling cross-examination" designed to test a recruit's "capacity to tolerate severe emotional and intellectual strain" should he be captured by enemy forces. Beginning in 1949 at Harvard, he would launch a series of experiments featuring similar tests undertaken in part for the military.

Kaczynski's would be the last of this postwar series - one of several projects run by Murray during the cold war for various defence agencies.

And while Murray, like many other behavioural scientists, rationalised such arrangements as part of their long search to find ways of improving human nature, the military establishment had different agendas. Indeed, Murray was a just a bit player in what would become a massive co-optation of university science by the military. This included the CIA's rogue MK-Ultra programme, which sponsored university experiments of mind-altering drugs on unwitting undergraduates.

Compared to such abuses, Murray's might seem benign. But they weren't. They violated established principles of experimental ethics, which forbids deceiving human subjects. And they would have profound consequences.

Each subject, including Kaczynski, was asked to write an essay on his personal philosophy of life and then come to the psychology clinic to discuss it with a classmate. But what ensued resembled the stressful interrogations Murray designed for OSS candidates during the second world war.

The student was escorted into a bright room and seated before a one-way mirror. A camera recorded his every move, while electrodes attached to his body monitored heart and respiratory rates. Then the debate began. But contrary to what Murray had told them, the students were confronted not with another student like themselves but with a mature lawyer who had been instructed to launch an aggressive verbal attack - to humiliate, brutalise and enrage him.

According to Murray's record, most subjects found this highly unpleasant, even traumatic. On average, studies find that about 20 per cent of subjects of such "deceptive" research - even the most apparently innocent forms of trickery - suffered psychological harm. And Kaczynski, Murray's notes reveal, was more harmed than most. All three scales of measurement the psychologist used found Kaczynski's experience to have been the most traumatic and negative of all.

Kaczynski is a child of our time, shaped by his personal history and perhaps by his genes, but also by ideas that were products of two historical trends: a crisis of reason and the cold war. Together, they helped produce the culture of despair that would inspire Kaczynski's ideology of rage.

The Harvard years proved crucial. It was there that Kaczynski encountered the ideas that appeared in the manifesto. It was there that he became a true believer in positivism, whose message, that moral beliefs lacked "cognitive content", he would later invoke to justify murder. It was there that his gradual alienation bloomed. It was there that he endured Murray's deceptive experiments, triggering a deep suspicion of psychology and the institutions it serves.

The real story of Kaczynski is one of the nature of modern evil - evil that results from the corrosive powers of intellect itself and its arrogant tendency to put ideas above common humanity. And although the vast majority of educated people never turn to crime, history shows that theorising is a prerequisite for conceiving mass murder. During the 20th century, political movements inspired by ideologies such as communism and Nazism killed about 200 million people.

Today, the world faces threats posed by other ideologies. And while differing in details, most share a hatred of modernity. What began as an academic problem - a loss of confidence in ancient western notions about reason - has transmogrified into a vast political assault by myriad groups on contemporary civilisation.

The military's abuses of US citizens during the cold war with the complicity of many university professors should therefore give us pause.

Deceptive experimentation is more common in the US today than it was in Murray's time. And it may get worse. For in launching its "war against terror", America seems poised to repeat the excesses that helped provoke the enmity of terrorists such as Kaczynski in the first place.

Alston Chase is an independent scholar. His book Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist is published by W. W. Norton on August 22 (£20.95).

This article made use of the "Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men, 1941-1962" (made accessible in 1981, raw data files). These data were collected by H. Murray and are available through the archive of the Henry A. Murray Research Center of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (producer and distributor). Before the author's access to the data, files of participants in the study whose identities were known to him were removed.

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