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Tuesday, May 21, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Leo

The Unabomber Is Just A Killer, Plain And Simple

I AM sitting in front of a pile of news clippings about the Unabomber suspect, Theodore Kaczynski. Now that the first great wave of post-arrest publicity is over, what can we conclude about him based on media analysis?

Well, first of all, that you shouldn't go around spending 18 years as a serial killer, of course, but apart from that, he's a pretty darned riveting fellow and worthy of some respect, despite that annoying habit of blowing people up.

Peter King wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "it could be argued that the Unabomber at least had the courage of his convictions. He - again, assuming the feds have the right man - lived in `wild nature.' He battled the machine."

The Media Research Center sent this quote from Time magazine correspondent Elaine Shannon, speaking on C-Span's "Sunday Journal": "He wasn't a hypocrite. He lived as he wrote" and called attention to the evils of pollution. Murder, she said, carried things to an extreme, "and obviously, murder is something that is far beyond any political philosophy, but he had a bike. He didn't have any plumbing; he didn't have any electricity."

Murder, in fact, wasn't "beyond any political philosophy" of the Unabomber. It was at the heart of his philosophy: The modern world is so evil that the desire to reform it justifies a lot of murders.

The comments from King and Shannon turn out to be rather typical of Unabomber commentary, saying, in effect, that he was not just your average serial killer because he had some principles, was motivated by environmental concerns, and lived a simple woodsy life that reflected those concerns.

A lot of analysis echoed this theme of the high-minded, abstemious reformer doing terrible things, yes, but somehow less terrible than his peers because of all the high-minded self-denial. Boston Globe staff writer John Yemma wrote: "What sets him apart from the Specks and Bundys and Gacys is that he appears to have gotten no pleasure out of his killings." This appeared under the sympathetic headline: "Brilliant Misfit Caught in Changing Times" (unlike the rest of us, who are presumably caught in very stable and unchanging times).

Somehow journalists seemed unable to keep from identifying with the Unabomber, a theme sounded by Robert Wright in Time: "There's a little bit of the Unabomber in all of us." Maybe so, but nobody goes around saying, "There is a little bit of Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy in all of us." Even among murderers who kill to make a political or social statement, no journalist seems likely to detect "a little bit of the Oklahoma City bomber in all of us."

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam went further, confessing that he can't bring himself to hate the Unabomber. "Quite the opposite, I find his story curiously affecting" and "undeniably intriguing." He is "horrified" by the three murders, but says of Kaczynski, "I envy him his disobedience" and agrees with the manifesto that "American society can be a powerfully compromising, deadening, even saddening force." At the end of his column, he says that "if Kaczynski proves to be the Unabomber, he is nobody's hero, certainly not mine . . . but maybe he accomplished what the Unabomber set out to do, to make us think about ourselves, and the society that drove him to madness."

This is a fascinating assessment. We are told that Kaczynski has accomplished two notable things. One, everybody has been forced to think about himself or herself and, two, we all have to meditate on what kind of society drove him to madness. (He apparently was one of life's passengers, who did no driving himself.)

Beam isn't sure that Kaczynski is the murderer. He pauses to insert the phrase "if Kaczynski is the Unabomber." But there is no "if" about whether Kaczynski has been driven mad and about who the driver was: It was "society," the conventional villain in certain types of social commentary.

The subliminal message is that Kaczynski must be separated from all other political killers because he is an intellectual and because he killed to advance principles widely shared in the world of journalists and intellectuals. Author Kirkpatrick Sale says he "was astonished that so many people were willing to listen to his message. It resonated with them." Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian and French literature at Stanford University, compared the Unabomber and Thoreau. Like Thoreau, Harrison said, "the Unabomber wants to wake us up with a treatise, yet the late 20th century is fundamentally different than the mid-19th century. In order to attract attention to a book, an idea, he had to get our attention with bombs."

Notice the same passive language: He had to get our attention with bombs just as he was driven crazy by society. The only rational course of action may be to call for a national moratorium on empathy for the Unabomber - no sharing his pain, no understanding his rage, no praise for having the courage of his convictions, no heart-tugging portraits of a sensitive fellow forced into felonies, no comparisons with Thoreau or Robin Hood. He is just a killer, folks, and it would be nice if our army of commentators could get around to saying this plainly.

(Copyright, 1996, John Leo)

John Leo's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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