For their part, the feds hardly acknowledged David Kaczynski’s vital role until well after the trial, when a betrayed and rattled David refused their offer of an honorary ceremony. He had asked that the feds not identify him as the finger-pointer, but they wronged him on that account. The brothers haven’t spoken since before Ted’s arrest in 1996, a sad footnote to the story that might not have been had Ted remained in the dark about his brother’s role in the investigation.
The brothers, the only offspring of Theodore, a sausage-maker, and Wanda, an elementary school aide, were raised in Evergreen Park, Ill., to appreciate the outdoors and to be able to survive without relying on the comforts of modern living. After learning he had lung cancer in 1990, the senior Ted shot himself to death at home with David and Wanda in another room.
Ted, now 61 and holed up in the Florence, Colo., Supermax prison, took his survivalist training to an extreme, decrying technology as the harbinger of mankind’s demise. Most major media failed to recognize that many of the former University of California at Berkeley mathematics professor’s fears about the consequences of technology were legitimate, and still echo in the work of prominent futurists such as Ray Kurweil. In his 2003 book Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist (W.W. Norton & Co.), Alston Chase suggests, as does David, that Ted was not insane but rather the product of a hostile ideology that had its roots in a Harvard research study Ted participated in as an undergraduate.
Ted’s paranoid prognostications became public after his Manifesto was published in both The New York Times and the Washington Post, which printed it after consultation with then Attorney General Janet Reno. In a letter to authorities, Kaczynski told them to publish his work or more bombs would follow. The feds and newspapers complied, hoping that someone would recognize the Unabomber’s writing style and generate some leads.
That someone happened to be David Kaczynski, 54, who was working as a social worker in Albany at the time. He recognized several elements of the writing, such as his brother’s violent fear of progress and a family quirk, the skewed saying, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.” The decision to let authorities in on his suspicion changed David Kaczynski’s life irreparably. While Ted was spared the death penalty and instead serves four consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole, David’s role as the whistle-blower severed his fragile ties with his mentally unstable brother and drove him to his current post as executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. He still lives in Albany, with his wife of 13 years, Linda Kaczynski.
With the help of the Central New York Chapter of NYADP, Kaczynski recently claimed his latest victory in the campaign against capital punishment. The Syracuse Common Council passed a resolution by an 8–1 vote on Nov. 17 that calls for a moratorium on the death penalty in New York state to provide breathing room to reexamine the practice. Councilor-at-Large Joanie Mahoney explained the council’s support for the resolution as, “not pro- or anti-death penalty. The statistics provided were compelling enough, however, to warrant reevaluation to see if it’s being applied fairly.”
In a break during a Nov. 7 symposium called Rethinking the Criminalization of Youth, at Cornell University, Kaczynski sat down with The [Syracuse, N.Y.] New Times to share the saga of his journey from social worker to celebrity sidekick in the Unabomber media circus and back to a form of social work in his current quest to freeze the death penalty. Interestingly, Janet Reno sat on the same panel.
Q: Give me the Reader’s Digest version of the evolution of your relationship with your brother.
A: He is 7 1/2 years older but despite that we were close. At times, he was a very good brother. I remember when we were younger, living in the suburbs of Chicago, I couldn’t reach the handle on our screen door. Ted took an old thread spool and nailed it onto a spot on the door that I could reach. That’s how I remember him. I never saw him violent in any way, just sensitive. He never really had friends, but he’d play softball with me and my friends. He loved nature and I looked up to him. As we grew older he’d have shutdowns. I was afraid he might hurt himself but I never imagined…It wasn’t until the 1980s when his letters got really angry. I tried to talk to him and he couldn’t discuss certain things rationally.
Q: You also tried your hand at the Walden lifestyle. Were those forays into living off the land with, or separate from, Ted?
A: We bought land in Montana together. Ultimately life took me elsewhere. I fell in love with Texas and lived in a cabin there for a few years. I got away on sort of a spiritual quest. I wanted to write a novel. I, however, maintained friendships and developed new ones. I always had this sneaking suspicion that Ted’s journey was away from things, not in pursuit of them.
Q: So where did his anti-technology paranoia and terrorism come in?
A: At 17, he was a participant in a research study conducted at Harvard which wouldn’t pass muster today. He was deceived about the nature of the study by design. He thought he was in there to talk about life, but the study was designed to see how he’d respond to direct attacks on his life philosophy and person. A lot of personal, ad hominem stuff. Its purpose, I think, was to study debriefing of military personnel. Mental illness has complex origins. I wonder if he wasn’t sending out those bombs saying, “See! I’m right! I’m still right!”
Q: What sort of choices did you have when you realized he might be the Unabomber?
A: My wife Linda and I realized that anything we did could result in death. What if we did nothing? We were possibly in a position to prevent more people from being hurt or killed. On the other hand, I’d be turning in my own brother. What would that be like, since they’d surely go for the death penalty, to have my brother’s blood on my hands? My mom had worried for years about Ted but she never imagined this. Would she be able to handle it? [My wife and I] were both in sort of socially conscious work. She was teaching university and I was working with troubled youth. We figured that we put a certain amount of stock in our beliefs and we’d be hypocrites to look past that.
Q: How did the Justice Department burn you for doing the right thing?
A: When we spoke to the FBI, we asked that they keep our role confidential and they promised to do so. They also promised us that they would try to rule Ted out first instead of just moving straight into a manhunt. That they did. They didn’t keep the promise of confidentiality. It was like something out of a zombie movie. These media people had risen and were beating on our doors, and we’re hoping the walls would hold. The FBI said it was a leak, a maverick agent. They had told us that helping them was helping Ted. We believed them and opened our lives to them to stop the violence. Our partnership ended the day of Ted’s arrest. At that point, we were still interested in saving lives, while they were switching gears in order to take one. They didn’t, of course, but that was because we were able to use part of the $1 million reward to get Ted some really good lawyers.
Q: You’ve told me before that you were anti-death penalty before the Ted ordeal. What was it back then that seemed wrong about state-sponsored killing?
A: In eighth grade we were asked to take sides for “the debate,” and I was put on the “anti” side. It seemed to me that there was no evidence that it was a deterrent, and it was more expensive. Seemed like an easy choice. Then later I saw this movie, a real moralistic picture. A kid robbed someone and, at the end, he was executed, and I just remember it showed this teenager in the gas fumes, struggling, with all the witnesses standing there stone-faced, watching. Normally, I’d watch a movie and if it was good vs. bad, I’d cheer for the good guy. This was different. Something seemed—inequality, a power imbalance—something very wrong. I never thought I’d confront that wrong firsthand.
Q: What did your experience with Ted add to those beliefs?
A: One thing I realized watching a news clip of Ted being led out of his cabin with a sooty face, glazed eyes, about the scariest anyone could possibly be. He was called a terrorist, I think, definitely a serial killer and a hermit. I realized that those terms just provided a cover for people so they didn’t have to think about it. There was a human story there, more dimension. They didn’t show the guy who put a handle on the door for his brother. The other thing I learned was about how the judicial system took a noble cause and turned it adversarial. The psychiatrist they brought in [to evaluate Ted], you would never hire if you wanted therapy. This guy’s job was to get convictions for prosecutors. We came forward in truth and compassion and there they were tuned for social revenge. I thought in a big case like this they would search for the best, cleanest, King Solomon-style justice. I realized that the bureaucratic system is incapable of processing the complex realities of justice and things like mental illness.
Six or seven months after Ted went to prison, I got a call from a Bill Babbitt, who said I was the only one who could understand his troubles. He had turned in his brother Manny after reading an article where an elderly woman had been beaten in her apartment and died of a heart attack. He told the cops that Manny had been in Vietnam, been a decorated soldier in Khe Sanh, and that Manny had never really come back from ‘Nam. Bill wasn’t concerned about the death penalty until he was in court and the DA said he was seeking it. The difference between Manny and my brother is that Manny had a public defender who reportedly drank on the job. Manny was black and he got an all-white jury and he was put on death row and executed. I remember driving back to New York from Manny’s funeral in Massachusetts and crying the entire way thinking that Bill’s reward for doing the right thing was this cruelty and indifference to human value. I realized then that my life had changed, that it wasn’t going to be the same and that there were lessons to be learned. I knew I had to tell my story and Bill’s story because that’s the reality of the death penalty.
Q: Which led you to your current position as director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. Give me a rough sketch of what you do all year.
A: I speak at about 100-plus appearances. Colleges, churches, community organizations. I’m trying to put a human face on the issue. We also have 10 chapters around the state that I work with. Mainly we’re looking to find a common ground on the issue, which I believe is a moratorium. All that is is a chance for us all, those for and against [the death penalty], to take a step back and look at what we’re doing. We’ve gotten more than 300 organizations across the state to sign in support of moratoriums including unions, city councils in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and New York City [and now Syracuse], and the New York State Bar Association. We know so much more about the death penalty than we did seven or eight years ago it’s unbelievable. The inconsistencies in the application of the death penalty should be reason enough. Half of the people on [New York’s] death row are in Suffolk County. The scales of justice aren’t balanced by the crime. It’s based on race, whim, whatever. The DA has no guidelines for the pursuit of the death penalty. They could roll dice if they wanted. Also, it’s very expensive. The state has spent $160 million on the death penalty since 1995 and done so in a time of budget concerns where schools are losing money.
Q: I think after Ted’s trial, people probably expected you to either disappear or try to atone for your brother’s sins by working for victims’ families or something. Why put your energies toward helping people who commit these heinous crimes?
A: I do it to make sure our system doesn’t reflect poor human values. I met a guy, on death row for 26 years, who was proven innocent and let out without even a bus ticket home. No apology. If you want people to be kind, you need a justice system held to the highest standards. It’s a passion now, not just an opinion. Our relationship to justice is critical. If we say it’s someone else’s problem, we don’t have a stake in the system. The death penalty helps separate us from the justice system.
Q: What arguments do people use to say you’re wrong on this issue? Can you argue against yourself for a minute?
A: There’s generally two arguments I hear. One is deterrence. Killing will prevent killing. The problem is, it’s been researched to death and no one can show that it has any more effect than just life imprisonment. The other argument is closure, the idea that victims’ families need an execution to feel at peace, to have a resolution. I’ve heard that called a hurtful idea by victims’ families. It’s no real closure, but they have no choice in the matter. They continue to live with their loss just like I continue to live with my brother’s situation. For 20 years or so, every time there is an appeal in one of these cases, the family is forced to relive the entire ordeal in public view. That doesn’t sound like catharsis to me.
Q: So then why do we have the death penalty?
A: (Laughs) Good question. We used to have the death penalty abolished in [New York] and just as the rest of the world was starting to catch up with us, we got it back. I think one reason we have it is because it’s perceived as a winning political strategy by those who believe it to be so. It gives the illusion of being tough on crime. Also, the media here is bad. News media follow the credo, “If it bleeds, it leads.” They believe that violence sells and that affects our public discussion. The other side of that is that reasoned policy and rationality don’t sell, and so our public dialogue is impoverished.
Q: Do you have a wish list of things you want to see happen as a result of your efforts?
A: All I can hope for at this point is to see moratoriums take hold. We have problems with the death penalty right now including some unresolved constitutional issues. It only makes sense to say, “Let’s study this,” outside of the blinding light of politics. It makes total rational and economic sense, but rationality doesn’t seem to carry the day. My challenge is to get people to pick this up at a grass-roots level.
Q: Finally back to Ted for a moment. What kind of life has he made for himself in prison? Do you think he still believes in his anti-technology philosophies? Have you even been able to talk to him?
A: Not since before his arrest. I write to him three or four times a year. My mother writes to him more often. I hope that he gets my letters. My mother’s called the prison to ask about him, if he’s receiving treatment, and they say, “Federal prisoners are entitled to privacy. We can’t release that information. He’s entitled to treatment and he’s also entitled to refuse it.” So take what you will from that. We just hope he’s well. I hope that he’ll talk to me someday.
This article was originally published in the Nov. 25, 2003 issue of the Syracuse, N.Y. New Times.