13. The Ghost in the Cabin

May 21, 1998

ADX “Supermax” Federal Prison — Florence, Colorado

The United States sentenced Timothy McVeigh to die for blowing up their federal building in Oklahoma, and shipped him off to a maximum-security prison in Colorado — a locked box in the barren shadow of the Rocky Mountains, commonly known as “Supermax.” The facility had high walls, heavily armed guards, and technology advanced enough to restrain any man. There was no hope for escape; until McVeigh’s execution day came, he had little to do but work on his appeals, watch television, and write letters.

McVeigh maintained regular correspondence with a journalist from the Oklahoma Gazette, and in his letter to that reporter from May of 1998, McVeigh had to apologize for recent delays on his end of the conversation: “This place has turned into a complete circus. Kaczynski is literally my neighbor — and hence, most of my problems stem from this.”

Theodore John Kaczynski was the latest arrival at Supermax. His presence in the next cell was not, by itself, troublesome to his neighbor; it was the accompanying heightened security measures that needled McVeigh, including a 24-hour guard stationed in their cell block, and the lights kept on well into the night. The aura around the new arrival reflected that Ted Kaczynski was indeed something of a treasure at Supermax: he was the prize at the end of the most expensive manhunt in the history of American law enforcement.

* * *

The first bombs turned up back in 1979, in mail rooms at various universities around Illinois. One such device even started a fire, aboard a flight from Chicago O’Hare to Washington DC — if it had gone off as intended, hundreds would have died. After that, investigators with the FBI and the US Postal Service started collaborating, in a frenzied search for the mysterious mad bomber (or bombers). Forensics, and a few bombs that were recovered intact, showed that the devices were not very big, and were crudely put together, but also that each one showed more sophistication than the last; the task force had to find the party responsible before they perfected their craft.

Whoever it was, they didn’t seem to have any demands. There were no letters, or claims of responsibility for any of the bombs. And the packages were all postmarked from public mailboxes in different cities, with false return addresses.

This didn’t leave the FBI much to go on, so they hoped to narrow the bomber’s location based on the parts he used. But even that turned out to be a dead-end: every piece in the bomb’s construction was made from cheap wood, or recycled junk materials. Totally untraceable. It was as if there was just some hostile force, out there in the mail system, one that for some reason held a grudge against universities and airliners. The FBI thus dubbed their new task force UNABOM, and from there, their mysterious prey got a name: Unabomber.

* * *

In 1985, the Unabomber suddenly changed his modus operandi: an employee at a computer store was watching out the front window when she saw a man placing a package in the parking lot, in between cars. A few minutes later, the parcel exploded.

An FBI sketch artist’s depiction of what the clerk saw from the store window would soon form the iconic picture of the Unabomber: a thin, Caucasian man, with a mustache. The hood of his sweatshirt is up, and he is wearing aviator sunglasses, obscuring most of his identifying features. It is the portrait of a ghost.

The Unabomber suddenly dropped off the radar after that. There were no bombs for six years.

* * *

When the explosions started going off once again, in 1993, they were noticeably more powerful. And there was another change, even more significant: suddenly, the ghost had a message. After decades of mystery, the mute force behind the mayhem wanted to communicate.

The Unabomber sent one of his packages to an advertising executive’s house, and at the same time sent a letter to the New York Times, explaining why the target was chosen — out of “general principle,” since his chosen business was “the development of techniques for manipulating people’s attitudes.” As the bomber believed, “The people who are pushing all this growth and progress deserve to be severely punished.”

But there was more to it than just revenge: the Unabomber wanted an audience now.

Five months later, a package arrived at the offices of a forestry association, addressed to the CEO. The CEO opened it, and it exploded.

At the same time, the Washington Post and the New York Times received copies of the bomber’s 35,000 word “manifesto,” entitled Industrial Society and its Future. It was a dense, but lucid text, laying out a detailed case: that the progress of human civilization, away from the species’s natural habitats and behaviors, had been the cause of incalculable suffering. Advanced societies were factories of misery, where the citizens primarily engaged in “surrogate activities” — such as scientific study, or athletics — rather than hunting and gathering. We were building an unsustainable and perverse system to maintain control of humans, and as technology advanced, it would only get worse; universities, computers, advertising, airliners… all of it was a mistake. And if this “progress” didn’t stop soon, the bomber argued, then the consequences for humanity would be far deadlier than a few mail bombs.

The bomber promised to send more devices through the mail if the manifesto was not published in a major newspaper. On September 19, 1995, the Times and the Post jointly published the text as an eight-page supplement — acting on recommendation from the Director of the FBI, and the Attorney General — in the interest of “public safety.”

The general rule at the FBI was not to negotiate with terrorists, much less cede to their demands — but they wanted the Unabomber bad. And they needed a break.

It worked. The essay captured the Unabomber’s philosophy in one document, written in his own distinct voice. When David Kaczynski read it, he recognized the voice on the page, and told the FBI where to look: they could find his brother in a cabin, on a mountain in Montana.

* * *

Ted Kaczynski had been a brilliant math prodigy in the late 1960s, graduating early from Harvard and taking an assistant professorship at UC Berkeley. Only two years passed there, however, before he abruptly told his department heads, “out of the blue,” that he was giving up mathematics — and academia in general. Most of his colleagues at the school were mystified, but one of Ted’s superiors had a theory: “Kaczynski seemed almost pathologically shy, and as far as I know he made no close friends in the department. Efforts to bring him more into the swing of things had failed.”

After resigning, Kaczynski disappeared, wandering off into the Montana wilderness. He told his brother he was venturing out to live alone, to survive off the land, and to pursue what he believed was an ideal human existence — in harmony with nature, and without the complications and degradation that technology wrought. His brother even came out to the mountain in Montana, and helped build the tiny cabin, where Ted could live the rest of his days with no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. His dream home.

* * *

The FBI went up the mountain on April 3, 1996, and dragged the ghost out of the cabin, suddenly unmasking the bomber as an unkempt, grizzly-bearded hermit whose goal was — quite literally — to bomb human society back to the stone age.

Captured, the Unabomber would insist that his campaign had started as a counter-attack: if he had been allowed to, he would have stayed in his cabin, on the mountainside, and kept to himself. Indeed, he said there had been periods back on the mountain when he was lucky, and weeks would go by in which he could forget that civilization existed at all — as long as he wasn’t interrupted by an airliner passing overhead, or by new highways slicing through the woods, closer and closer to his cabin.

At trial, the bomber’s council pursued an insanity defense, and summoned doctors who would testify that the “mad bomber,” Ted, was indeed mentally ill: a paranoid schizophrenic. But Kaczynski himself vehemently rejected this diagnosis — as did many outside observers. Why, after all, should it be considered “crazy” to subsist in a way that is comparable to the conditions in which all of human civilization once lived?

Kaczynski begged the judge to let him represent himself, but found that his own defense team had already vetoed that option, working against him behind the scenes. So, on the eve of his trial, forced to choose between being diagnosed with a mental illness, or death, Ted tried to hang himself with his underwear.

It didn’t work. Finally, the Unabomber took a deal: he pleaded guilty, and accepted a life sentence at Supermax. It was the only way to avoid a public trial in which his own defense would portray him as insane, and surely dismiss his essay — Industrial Society and its Future, his life’s work — as the ravings of a madman.

And so, the state’s forces finally dragged Ted to Supermax, and stuffed him in the cell next to the Oklahoma City bomber. His cage for the rest of his days.

* * *

On the other side of the wall, Timothy McVeigh was wrapping up his letter to the journalist in Denver, and he shared something he had just overheard: “One of the guards out in the hall last night told another about the shootings at the school in Springfield, Oregon. The other guard’s response? (I’m not kidding…) — ‘Job security.’