Unabomber’s writings raise uneasy ethical questions

Apostolidès’ interview about the Unabomber on “Entitled Opinions” will be rebroadcast at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, on Stanford’s KZSU 90.1 FM. Robert Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the Department of French and Italian, will lead a blog discussion on the topic here tomorrow.  (Be patient:  Jean-Marie was late to KZSU; interview starts a few minutes in.)  Stay tuned!

Great crimes don’t end neatly with a trial. Uneasy questions linger: Should we disqualify ideas when they come from a killer’s lips? Is it right to disseminate the killer’s ideas – even while denouncing them – if the criminal killed precisely to give them weight and force?

For French Professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès, briefly a penpal of the notorious Unabomber and a translator of his writings, these very questions are a scholar’s terroir.

He was intrigued by the killer’s anti-technology stance, and says that on that score, Theodore Kaczynski may have been right. “Technology transformed humanity into something different than it was before, into a new creation – flesh and technè,” he said.

“We are mutants now. What will come out of it nobody knows. It’s something unprecedented – and scary,” he said. Science fiction, in many cases, is simply “presenting the fears of the metamorphosis.”

Apostolidès recently published in book form a French translation of the Unabomber’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. He is currently working on a philosophical and psychological study, Of Ink and Blood: The Writings of Theodore Kaczynski. The author of 1999’s L’Affaire Unabomber also has written the recently published The Metamorphoses of Tintin: Or, Tintin for Adults.

French Professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès briefly corresponded with the notorious Unabomber.

For Apostolidès, Kaczynski has been a 15-year interest. For most of us, the Unabomber is frozen in the image that gripped America on April 3, 1996: an unkempt, bearded recluse from the Montana wilderness, a man who by all appearances could have been a backwoods yokel or a hermit-saint, arrested following a 17-year spree of deadly bombings (many targeted at universities) that had earned him the tag “Unabomber.”

Apostolidès, who has a background as a psychologist as well as a playwright and scholar of French classical literature and drama, was not surprised by the profile of the killer – a brilliant, Harvard-educated mathematician who had been a professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

Apostolidès had become intrigued with the Unabomber’s screed, which critiques the pervasive effect of technology on our world and humanity’s increasing dependence on it. He had already translated Kaczynski’s “audacious” manifesto for the Parisian press a few weeks before the killer’s arrest. (Kaczynski said he would halt the killings if his Industrial Society and Its Future was published; the Washington Post and the New York Times obliged in 1995.)

Despite some sympathy for Kaczynski’s views on industrial society, Apostolidès embraces technology – “because I think there is no other way. It brings positive and negative things. They cannot be separated.

“Our global history as animals is to go beyond our animality in order to create something we don’t know. It has been the case since the caveman,” he said.

“There is a great leap leading God knows where,” he said.

Inevitably, technology’s takeover has its casualties. Kaczynski created them, and became one of them – a former professor now an inmate of a maximum-security prison. Kaczynski was haunted by the notion of the noble savage, a myth that has echoed through Western thought from Rousseau to today’s blockbuster Avatar. The Unabomber, said Apostolidès, is a direct heir of the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, the way back to the wilderness is a fantasy: “There’s no way we can return. No way to go back to the frontier man. Ted Kaczynski is a hundred years too late,” he said.

A secret that has expired

The translation of Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, which Apostolidès began the day after he read it in the Washington Post, was the first step in a longer journey. The next began with a secret.

“In the past, I was in a certain way tied to a secret that I think has no more value,” he explained. Shortly after the arrest, Apostolidès was approached by Kaczynski’s team of lawyers, who said they were concerned for the prisoner’s sanity and well-being in prison.

“They thought I would be a perfect penpal,” he said. Apostolidès was told to keep the correspondence secret even from his family. Thus began a brief, lopsided correspondence screened by Kaczynski’s lawyers and the FBI.

The brief correspondence did not go smoothly: “He did not want to talk to me; he wanted to preach. I detest that,” he said. “On one side he was scolding me, on the other side complimenting me.”

In retrospect, Apostolidès thinks the lawyers wanted him to help certify Kaczynski was insane. Yet, he said, “I’m convinced he has neurotic problems – but no more than anyone else. He has to be judged on his ideas and his deeds.” Our insistence on his insanity may be a way to avoid grappling with that, he said.

In an interview, Apostolidès leaned forward across the desk in his campus office and his voice dropped: “This will shock you. He’s a very nice guy, sweet, open-minded. And I know he has blood on his hands. You cannot be all bad – even if you kill, even Hitler.”

We would like our villains to be 100 percent evil, psychotic Snidely Whiplashes counting money in the backroom. (Look at the outcry at the portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall.) We are uncomfortable when they look even a little bit like us, but such ambiguity is the stuff of life, said Apostolidès.

The most obvious ambiguity may be centered within Apostolidès himself. He admits he has a longstanding interest in avant-garde ideas – but he writes about radical thoughts from the safe perch of a university professorship and his comfortable home on the Stanford campus. In short, as a part of the petite bourgeoisie Kaczynski despises.

Kaczynski’s manifesto argues that the leftist liberals who present themselves as rebels are, in fact, obedient servants of the dominant society – a symptom of “oversocialization.” He singles out “university intellectuals” as prime examples.

Apostolidès, who says he wouldn’t kill a fly, finds the criticism “absolutely appropriate.”

‘Our words have no power’

“It’s the problem of scholars, even artists: Our words have no power. We think we are changing the world – particularly on the left,” he said, and paused. “You accept your symbolic castration – that your writing will take time to have a modest influence on your contemporaries.” In other words, he accepts the compromises necessary to live a normal life, with an income, collegial support, home and family.

Yet Kaczynski’s writings and life have intrigued Apostolidès by emphasizing “the relationship between writing and killing, ink and blood.”

“From a cynical perspective, I write books without killing anyone – my writing will have no impact. The only way I can be listened to is to associate my writing to something.” That is, “either your own blood or someone else’s.”

For instance, he cited Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, whose meticulously planned seppuku in 1970 triggered an avalanche of interest in his works.

Kaczynski is following in these footsteps, rejecting the petit bourgeois alternative that Apostolidès has knowingly embraced and instead “linking blood and ink.”

If Apostolidès’ contention seems eggheaded, consider a Jan. 8 New York Times article on the Jordanian doctor who killed nine people, including himself and seven CIA officers, in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan: “My words will die if I do not save them with my blood,” he posted pseudonymously on a blog before his death.

“My articles will be against me if I don’t prove to them that I am not a hypocrite,” the posting read. “One has to die to make the other live. I wish I could be the one to die.”

That said, aren’t there moral reservations in advancing Kaczynski’s writings? After all, he killed to get an audience.

“I do not agree with his ideas, let alone his means to spread them,” Apostolidès said. Nevertheless, “The role of a scholar is to go beyond my own emotions and analyze everything.

“It does not mean we are unaware of the ethical dimension. But we have to go beyond. It is a necessity.”

Apostolidès’ interview about the Unabomber on “Entitled Opinions” will be rebroadcast at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, on Stanford’s KZSU 90.1 FM. Robert Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the Department of French and Italian, will lead a blog discussion on the topic at “The Book Haven” at https://bookhaven.stanford.edu.

10 Responses to “Unabomber’s writings raise uneasy ethical questions”

  1. w b carnochan Says:


    Now you can add me to your list of readers —


  2. John Says:

    Great blog, keeping me from working on traffic.
    Good to see more people writing about cynthia.

  3. Motivational Speaker Rene Godefroy Says:

    Linking blood and ink is crazy to me. I say crazy because if someone wants to kill in order to be heard or read, that’s considered to be very abnormal. Mr. Apostolidès mentioned that Kaczynski is not crazy although his actions are repulsive. I believe at some point the computer between Theodore Kaczynski’s brain got infested by a virus. What people will do to get attention is beyond me.

    Technology is transforming the world in a good and bad way. Often the people that are against it use it to spread their message. In the past, a lunatic with weird ideas was limited to how far he or she can spread their message. Now, it’s possible to spread their message throughout the world in less than a day or even an hour.

    Today we have computers and the internet. Hundreds of years ago it was in another form. Look at the technological breakthroughs in Ancient Egypt. The great minds of today are still scratching their heads trying to figure out how the pyramids were built.

    It’s possible that eventually technology will probably bring us to our own demise. But, we can’t stop the train. It’s in full force. It’s prophecy being fulfilled. The best we can do is to embrace it and deal with it. It makes no sense fighting something we cannot change. To all the Theodore Kaczynski out there, I say use your intellectual breath and geniuses to repurpose the same technology you are fighting to prevent the wrong it can do to us. Embrace it so you can learn how to use for good.

  4. tchatche ado Says:

    Thanks you for this artice:)

  5. Clever Internet Says:

    I think in committing crime, there is an element of narcissism in there, somewhere. Drawing attention to oneself through an act of violence is probably as old as mankind.

  6. Jim Says:

    Killing to draw attention to a cause is a horror the people of Earth know all too well.

  7. Jacky Says:

    Tough topic, really forced me to re-think some ideas. Thanks.

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  9. Kalikiano Kalei Says:

    Clearly, American society has and is experiencing a profoundly exponential explosion of severe social anomie. We see it in every aspect of our culture today. We are also increasingly seeing it internationally, as the American model of (techno-science facilitated) democratic capitalism is increasingly adopted throughout the world. Aside from the adversely fragmenting effects of what we know in ‘PC dialect’ as ‘the blessings of diversity’ (adverse because ‘diversity’ is creating more polar divisions amongst narrow-minded individuals, more cultural misunderstanding, greater misanthropy and near rampant xenophobia, given its schismatic dynamics), this anomie is greatly fostered by an unconscious, broadly diffuse sense of victimisation being felt by virtually everyone as the explosion of science & technology (greatly aided & abetted by the forces of commercial advertising & marketing) rips us further and further away from eternal natural elements of our earthly matrix (read: nature and the natural world we evolved within and are an inextricable part of) and greatly amplifies the effects of what Kaczynski describes as a failure of the individual ‘power process’, with its resultant synthetic surrogate process alternatives.

    If one repudiates all mystical presumptions (that is, tenets of religious belief that impose certain artificially contrived ethics and moralities) that human life is somehow sacred, all things suddenly then become not only possible but perhaps (frighteningly) even plausible. Merely because we have castigated Kaczynski for taking human life, we feel we can conveniently disregard his primary thesis, which is that the artifice of science & technology is, in its accelerative imposition of radical change, somehow exceeding human ability to absorb exponential change and accommodate it without also causing a massive descent into the rsultingl madness that is total social anomie.

    It is extremely heartening to find that others (like Dr. Apostolides) are able to rise above the popular wave of categorical knee-jerk rejection of Koczynsky and take a balanced & even-minded look at what he actually has to say…

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