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Forensic Psychology

Terrorism, Resentment and the Unabomber

Forensic psychologist Dr. Stephen Diamond revisits the infamous Unabomber case.

Last week marked the twelfth anniversary of the arrest of Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. Kaczynski, as some may recall, was a mad bomber who killed 3 individuals and wounded 23 over a period of almost 20 years in a one-man terrorist attack against society. When I say Kaczynski was "mad," I mean that he was both angry and severely mentally ill. He was, evidently, also a boy genius.

With a purported childhood IQ of 170, Ted Kaczynski entered Harvard University as a brilliant 16-year-old undergraduate, going on to earn a Master's and Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Michigan. He joined the mathematics faculty at U.C. Berkeley in 1967, but abruptly and inexplicably resigned just two years later.

From there, it was all downhill. He withdrew from the world, building himself a funky cabin in the Montana woods without running water or electricity, and subsisted with no means of support other than some money from his family and occasional odd jobs. By 1978, the bombings began.

Most of Kaczynski's victims were academics or businessmen connected to the computer or technology fields. But his homemade pipe bombs also found their way to airline officials, and into the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight in 1979. Fortunately, that powerful bomb fumed but failed to explode.

In 1995, after decades of terrorist activity, Kaczynski, now known publicly as the Unabomber, demanded that his "manifesto" be published verbatim — or the bombings would continue. The New York Times decided to print this lengthy, rambling, raging rant against modern technological culture, the style and content of which Kaczynski's brother recognized. On April 3, 1996, the infamous Unabomber was finally arrested, ending his extensive reign of terror.

Several (but not all) of the forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who examined Kaczynski diagnosed him as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz suggested Kaczynski was not psychotic but suffered instead from a schizoid or schizotypal personality disorder.

Following a failed attempt to hang himself, he was found competent to stand trial and pled guilty to the charges in a deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty. Though his defense attorneys tried to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, Kaczynski refused, perhaps in part due to denial about his illness, a very common symptom of schizophrenia; or perhaps because of his own narcissism, not wanting to be maligned as mentally ill. He is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a Colorado prison.

What can we learn from this case about madness and destructive behavior such as terrorism? I suspect that Ted Kaczynski was a frustrated, angry guy, who never fit into "normal" society. As a graduate student, he sought treatment for symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sexual identity confusion. He had always been described as "aloof," even as a child, felt emotionally abused by his parents, and was cruelly teased by his peers for being different. He is likely an extremely introverted type who never developed the extraverted skills required to live in the world.

Kaczynski sounds very much to me like John Nash, the brilliant but tortured mathematician portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind (2001), but with one crucial difference: That person ultimately learned to live with his demons, choosing to manage and even make constructive use of his madness; Kaczynski completely succumbed to his. Like Darth Vader in the Star Wars epic, Kaczynski gave in to evil, the shadowy "dark side." He chose the anonymous but attention-grabbing power of destructiveness over the challenge of living in the world creatively. Kaczynski rejected life rather than embracing it.

Terrorism is itself a form of madness. Perpetrators of terrorism express their rage at the world destructively, in a desperate, last-ditch, and sometimes suicidal attempt to gain recognition, fame, or glory for themselves and their cause and, ultimately, to give some shred of meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives. Terrorism is typically an infantile and narcissistic act of violence stemming from profound feelings of impotence, frustration, and insignificance. In their own ways, the vengeful shootings at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, and the Omaha mall were, like the mad bombings of Ted Kaczynski, all evil acts of terrorism. Terrorists try to force the world to meet their own narcissistic demands, and, when this doesn't happen, they lash out violently. Terrorism is a failure to find a creative solution to life, to find and fulfill one's true destiny. Terrorism is, in most cases, the madness of resentment.

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