The tragedy of the Unabomber

Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski aka the Unabomber serves prison time in the US as a domestic terrorist. The genius former mathematics professor is charged with killing three people and injuring 23 others using mail bombs. To me, Kaczynski’s story is laden with potential intervention points from the very beginning.

Why did he turn to crime?

He pursued a personal war against those he identified as promoters of technological progress at the risk of people’s well-being and nature.

While experts eschew his acts of violence, they laud his ideas about technology’s damaging role in the society and the call to restrict its negative impact on people and the environment.

Different people

I think there necessarily must be people who think differently in every period and clime. While the world rewards some as geniuses when their insights and skills translate to commercial or cultural benefit (ultimately commercial), others end up embittered, enemies of fast society, recluses unfit for their time, mad, desolate, abandoned…

Except where God intervenes. Except where the family or community around that person care enough or do so successfully.

Highlights from his story and potential intervention points

1. He had hives as a baby and was isolated for days. His family reported he became “emotionally unresponsive” for months after that.

Based on general information I found online, hives happens to be an allergic reaction to a variety of things and not an infectious condition. So, why was he isolated? And what was done to assuage his emotional distress?

2. He was precocious, scored 167 in an IQ test in grade 5. By the way, Einstein’s was 160 (The story goes that his teacher sent him home saying he was too dumb to learn).

Gifted or genius IQ comes with its own burden. Children like this need the same amount of attention and care as those classified as “moderately impaired or delayed” in the lowest ends of the IQ scale.

Were there any special attempts to attend to his special needs? His mother considered signing him up for a developmental programme but didn’t like the psychologist’s approach.

But I see something else.

3. He skipped grade 6 and lost the crucial social connection to his age mates and friends. His social link to the world was gone.

How was this disconnection addressed? A child’s social needs are as important as any other.

4. He was bullied in high school, considered a “walking brain” instead of a real person.

How was the bullying addressed? Perhaps, his parents could have reported the situation to the school authorities so they could intervene. They could have sought for help from counsellors and helped reduce or remove the effect of the bullying by paying more attention to him.

5. He was generally quiet in grade and high school.

How was this addressed? Was he quiet or reserved in strange ways? Sometimes it can be easy for an observer to determine this. It is possible to help a child through unnatural reticence through counselling and support.

6. He got into Harvard at age 15 without “being prepared emotionally”.

What did anyone do? The child’s guardian has to work on encouraging the child’s emotional maturity by showing love and guiding him to express the same to other people, family members, friends, and acquaintances.

One key way could be to encourage the child’s participation in social activities and developing close friendships.

It gets worse.

7. He was enrolled to a psychology experiment setup to observe how people turned out when they were consistently abused and derided…for over three years (3!) or more than 200 hours! He was practically told he was worthless consistently over those years.

What kind of programming was that? To what end was this so-called experiment? Did his parents know about it? If they knew, what did they do? Why didn’t anyone help?

The lower he fell, the faster he went.

8. By 25, he began to feel he was a woman and planned to undergo a gender change.

Where did all that come from?

  • He thought, wisely, to see a psychiatrist for help but changed his mind while in the waiting room. Okay, but afterwards he battled feelings of killing the said psychiatrist!
  • At 25/27, he was the youngest professor at UC Berkeley at the time, taught for two years, resigned, went back home and then went out to live all by himself in the wilderness – no family, no friend. What did his family or community do about it?

What if we cared–or cared better?

I believe the tragedy of the Unabomber might have been averted if someone paid attention or intervened to stop his descent.

Based on what’s revealed about his story (nothing’s ever truly simple if you dig deeper, as you unravel the situation), I believe we would avert similar outcomes if parents, friends, family, teachers, the ones closest to children paid more attention, exerted more effort to intervene when we notice strange behaviours.

People are praised, adulated for their talent and contribution but more should be done to care for the individual, to pay attention to souls, to the well-being of people as individuals. The person must be exalted above his output.

Model for intervention

I’d be naive to think I’ve discovered one-tenth or a hundredth of what Kaczynski’s family and community did, or did not do, to help him at those various points. But we can use his story as a model to determine potential intervention points that we can act on when we observe them in children, young adults and people.

Perhaps the interventions will fail in altering the child’s course from the path of isolation to depression, mental illness, and deviance. Or perhaps our actions will help save precious lives from derailing.

Still, we must take our chances while the probability of success exists.


While Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski remains in prison serving eight consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, is there any hope he can be “redeemed”?

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