23. The Ghost in the Cage

January 16, 2001

ADX “Supermax” Federal Prison — Florence, Colorado

Ted Kaczynski found it nearly impossible to adjust to life in Supermax. While his cabin in Montana hadn’t been much bigger than his cell now was, the Unabomber didn’t care anything for indoor space, or amenities, anyway. He missed being up on the mountain, and being immersed in nature — as free as could be, and as close as he could possible get to the life of a primitive human. Almost an animal.

But now he was completely surrounded with walls, and right-angles, and bells and buzzers. He had no freedom. Everything was rules. And likely, the worst rule of them all was that he could only go outside, and be under the sky, for just one hour a day. The cell walls even followed him out to the exercise yard; each prisoner at Supermax was put in their own wire-mesh cage for their rec time. Ted usually spent his jogging in a circle.

One day, his neighbor called him over to the mesh boundary separating them: it was Timothy McVeigh, and he wanted to ask Kaczynski a question.

Kaczynski had some concept of who this young man with the army buzz-cut was, and why he had blown up the federal building in Oklahoma City — something about the 2nd Amendment, and Waco — but these had just been shadows outside the Unabomber’s proverbial cave, when he still lived up on the mountain.

Fortunately, the mountain life was all McVeigh really wanted to ask about: he heard that Kaczynski did a lot of hunting for small game during his years in Montana. What type of rifle had he used?

The Unabomber told him he actually had two hunting rifles: a .22 and a .30-06. McVeigh nodded. Kaczynski went back to his exercise.

* * *

A few days passed, and once again Kaczynski was jogging in his circle in his cage, when he heard McVeigh calling over to him. The younger man wanted to share one of the advantages of the .30-06 over the .22: “You can get armor-piercing ammunition for it.”

“So? What would I need armor-piercing ammunition for?” the old math professor replied. And as he remembers it, McVeigh’s response “indicated that I might some day want to shoot at a tank.”

The Unabomber thought that was pretty silly, but kept it to himself:

If I’d considered it worth the trouble I could have given the obvious answer, that the chances I would ever have occasion to shoot at a tank were very remote. I think McVeigh knew well that there was little likelihood that I would ever need to shoot at a tank—or that he would either, unless he rejoined the Army. My speculative interpretation is that McVeigh resembles many people on the right who are attracted to powerful weapons for their own sake and independently of any likelihood that they will ever have a practical use for them. Such people tend to invent excuses, often far-fetched ones, for acquiring weapons for which they have no real need.

That thought, in turn, made Kaczynski want to ask something of McVeigh: What exactly is the distinction between the political “right” or “left” in America anymore?

Kaczynski, confessing that he had a limited understanding of this concept due to his decades of seclusion, clarified, “The word ‘right,’ in the political sense, was originally associated with authoritarianism,” and this “raised the question of why certain radically anti-authoritarian groups (such as the Montana Freemen) were lumped together with authoritarian factions as the ‘right.’”

In response, McVeigh “explained that the American far right could be roughly divided into two branches, the fascist/racist branch, and the individualistic or freedom-loving branch which generally was not racist.” He said he didn’t understand why these two branches were lumped together as the “right,” but in practice, there was only one real, consistent difference between them, collectively, and the left: “The left (in America today) generally dislikes firearms, while the right tends to be attracted to firearms.”

Kaczynski was surprised to find that he actually liked McVeigh. He thought most people probably would too, if they met him on the street, and didn’t know who he was, or what he had done. The pair talked more as the months went past, and the Unabomber — an avowed anarchist, but portrayed as an incoherent nut — found McVeigh wasn’t the “extreme right-winger” that he was depicted as, either.

McVeigh fit neatly into his own expressed theory of the real political divide in America; he obviously loved guns, but he spoke respectfully of other cultures — even of the Iraqis he fought in the Gulf War — and in doing so, Kaczynski thought that McVeigh sounded more like a liberal. “He certainly was not a mean or hostile person, and I wasn’t aware of any indication that he was super patriotic,” Kaczynski would write. “I suspect that he is an adventurer by nature, and America since the closing of the frontier has had little room for adventurers.”

Kaczynski never asked McVeigh about Oklahoma City, or why he did it. But the professor had his personal opinions about the attack (having himself pondered different choices of targets many times, while assembling package bombs during his solitary years in the cabin). He thought that bombing the federal building in Oklahoma was a “bad action,” specifically because “it was unnecessarily inhumane”:

Most of the people who died at Oklahoma City were, I imagine, lower-level government employees — office help and the like — who were not even remotely responsible for objectionable government policies or for the events at Waco. If violence were to be used to express protest, it could have been used far more humanely, and at the same time more effectively, by being directed at the relatively small number of people who were personally responsible for the policies or actions to which the protesters objected.

It was a question of tactics. The Unabomber didn’t need to wonder why someone would want to blow up “the system” — the airplanes passing over his cabin had been enough to make him plant a bomb on one of them. But he was a younger man at that time, and he had since grown to regret the action. He had said so even before he was identified, in one of his “Freedom Club” letters he had sent down the mountain to the New York Times:

We don’t think it is necessary for us to do any public public soul-searching in this letter. But we will say that we are not insensitive to the pain caused by our bombings. […] In one case we attempted unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner. The idea was to kill a lot of business people who we assumed would constitute the majority of passengers. But of course, some passengers would likely have been innocent people — maybe kids or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We’re glad now that that attempt failed.

* * *

In January of 2001, Timothy McVeigh dropped all of his appeals. The federal government moved him out of Supermax, to a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he would await his execution, scheduled for that May.

No longer neighbors, and forbidden to communicate directly, the bombers instead exchanged reading material; Kaczynski arranged for McVeigh to receive a subscription to the radical environmentalist newspaper Green Anarchy (which would be publishing some of Kaczynski’s own essays later that year). In return, McVeigh sent Kaczynski a copy of the book Into the Wild, by nature writer Jon Krakauer. The story seemed perfect for the Unabomber: the true tale of a young man who goes out into the woods, to get lost, and to find himself. McVeigh figured the Ghost from the Cabin would identify. (Indeed, Kaczynski — a notoriously tough reader to please since his Harvard days — quite enjoyed the story.)

* * *

Six days before McVeigh was set to be executed, the Attorney General issued a postponement of 30 days, over concerns that McVeigh’s attorneys did not have access to certain pieces of evidence at the trial.

During the delay, McVeigh granted a death-row interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes. On prime time television, Ed Bradley asked him why he did it; McVeigh talked about Ruby Ridge and how it had made him feel, and about the time he traveled to the perimeter at Waco, before it all went up in flames. He saw what he had done as striking back.

Bradley asked him about his friendship with the Unabomber; McVeigh confirmed the rumors, and said that he and Kaczynski had found they had a lot in common, even though he considered the mountain man “far left,” and himself “far right” politically: “I found that, in a way that I didn’t realize, that we were much alike, in that all we ever wanted or all we wanted out of life was the freedom to live our own lives however we chose to.”

The attorneys finished reviewing the case, and the United States Government scheduled Timothy McVeigh’s execution for June 11, 2001. When that morning came, survivors and relatives of his victims watched on closed-circuit television as the lethal injection was administered. The most notorious terrorist in America was no more.

March 5, 2001

Santana High School — Santee, California

A group of three senior boys were getting drunk one weekend, blowing off steam over their grades and their teachers. They hated their school. One of them, the new kid in their group, said he wanted to shoot someone there. “You’re a pussy,” his friends told him. “You won’t do it.” But as the night went on, they found themselves drawing maps, and talking through the best way to go about it, as a team. Someone called it “pulling a Columbine.”

They all forgot about it once they sobered up — except for the new kid. He hadn’t known much about Columbine before that, but he hated his life, and had been looking for a way out. So the next day, he brought his .22 pistol to school, shot a few classmates in one of the bathrooms, then came out into the hall, and shot into the crowd. But when police arrived — bringing the moment the gunman had been waiting for — he found he couldn’t muster the nerve to point the gun at them. So instead of suicide-by-cop, he just got arrested. Eventually, in prison, a forensic psychiatrist would diagnose him with a “major depressive disorder.”

The White House — Oval Office

It was the first time that President George W. Bush was faced with responding to a school shooting incident. He was standing in the same room his father had in 1989, when George H.W. Bush first acknowledged the Stockton attack.

Taking a few moments before his planned update on tax cuts, he told reporters that what happened at Santana High School was “a disgraceful act of cowardice,” and that the country would be better off “when America teaches their children right from wrong and teaches values to respect life — and the values that respect life in our country.”

He called on an Associated Press reporter:

Reporter: What can the president do, if anything, to stop children from shooting children?

The President: All of us, all adults in society can teach children right from wrong, can explain there is a — that life is precious. All of us must be mindful of the fact that some people may decide to act out their aggressions or their pain and hurt on somebody else, and be diligent. We don’t know enough of the facts right now, [as to] what took place. But I do know that first things are first, and that is, our prayers go with the families who lost a child today.

Upon his inauguration just two months before, President Bush had appointed a new Secretary of Education, who would oversee a special project that the Clinton administration was handing off: the report from the Secret Service and Department of Education’s “Safe School Initiative,” nearly complete.

After the shooting in California, as questions started to mount over what the administration’s priorities were going to be when it came to addressing school violence, the Secretary urged patience, but said one thing was for sure: “It’s beyond guns. The guns may be the instrument of the violence, but they’re not the cause of the violence. We need to look to the cause of the situation.”

And as for that cause, “Probably the biggest problem we have is the amount of alienation and rage in our young people.”

For a solution, he pointed to an increase in funding toward the “character education” classes that President Bush had announced as part of his new budget plan, and to the newly-established White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: a task force designed to help religious and community groups obtain federal tax dollars for their social-service work. The secretary said these sorts of after-school programs would be “an opportunity to teach kids things like empathy, compassion, tolerance — all values that we all know are wonderful.”

Fall 2001

Sandy Hook Elementary School

Little of record is known about Adam Lanza’s 4th grade year, beyond that he again attended Sandy Hook Elementary School. What remains are a few scattered memories, and scraps of the education plans put together by his Planning and Placement Team.

It is not known, for instance, if he was placed in (as his mother wrote in her request) “a classroom with a more casual feel to it.” However, early in the 4th grade, Adam’s IEP shows that he once again “met all speech goals.” Subsequently, the district discharged him fully from the special education program. He apparently got no special treatment for the remainder of this year at all; however (as the Child Advocate would later observe) the decision to remove these speech supports may not have been appropriate, as it was based on tests that only indicated that he had “no error sounds” — an observation that (once again) did not speak to his challenges with expression.

In another brief file from this school year, Adam was documented to be performing at “age-appropriate levels of academic and social skills.” He took the standardized Connecticut Mastery Test, as required of all 4th graders in the state under President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” act, and got good scores — an overall 4 out of 5 (with 5 considered “Advanced.”)

If there was anything seriously wrong with Adam at this time, it wasn’t showing up in his school work. Meanwhile, his mother was likely experiencing significant anxiety herself; the problems in her marriage were getting worse, and she did not react well to stress.

* * *

A few weeks into Adam’s 4th grade school year, on a clear Tuesday morning, classes were interrupted with breaking news: terrorists had crashed hijacked passenger jets into the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. All of a sudden, America was at war.

* * *

A week later, postal workers, along with a few employees opening envelopes at U.S. Congressional offices, started getting sick; someone in New Jersey was sending military-grade anthrax spores through the mail.

Almost overnight, the paranoia spread across the region, and it was so sharp that even Newtown felt the fear; the police had to shut down Queen Street on the afternoon of October 13, when a 9-1-1 call reported a woman seen “tossing a white powder from a bag.” A search found no dangerous substances, but similar false-alarm calls continued well into the new year.

In this atmosphere, for once, Adam’s anxiety level might have looked normal.

Traders Sporting Goods — San Leandro, California

Tony was seeing more and more customers in his store, and their purchases were changing. “What happened was that people got another big scare when the Twin Towers were attacked,” he told the Los Angeles Times. And Tony was always well-positioned when fear drove the market — people were stockpiling for the apocalypse, more so than they ever had during Y2K. He had run out of gas masks, and he was selling through pallets of MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) every week. And many customers were also buying their first firearms, plus ammunition in bulk. “This is a group mostly from the suburbs who thought nothing would happen to them,” the Times quotes him saying. That was, until 9/11.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Sometime during the fall of 2001, life at 36 Yogananda changed forever: Adam’s parents told the boys they were separating. Nancy and Peter weren’t actually going to file for an official divorce just yet, but the marriage was definitely through. Dad was moving out.

The family unit at 36 Yogananda actually didn’t register Peter’s exit much, at first; Nancy had already felt like she was parenting alone, ever since moving to Newtown. Peter had only ever been around to help with the boys on weekends anyway — now they would just consider it his visitation rights. “I was working insane hours,” Peter would later admit. And that certainly wasn’t about to change.

Still, even if just ceremonially, it was a profound shift in lives of everyone in the home: the point when the union of Nancy Champion and Peter Lanza, together since their high school days and all through their years in Kingston, had finally broken down. From there on, it was going to be just Nancy and her two boys in the pale-yellow house on the hill.

Peter got an apartment in Stamford — an hour to the south, and closer to work. A decade later, there would still be boxes of his clothes, marked “PJL” in black marker, left behind in the attic of 36 Yogananda.

* * *

A neighbor sent Nancy an invitation to a dinner party, sometime around then. The host had met Nancy before, but they weren’t close friends. When they crossed paths again, the woman asked Nancy why she never RSVP’d, and she remembers Nancy explaining that it was “because there was no return address on the envelope, so she thought there was anthrax in it.” The neighbor couldn’t decide if she was joking or not.

* * *

Adam turned ten years old in April of 2002. Baseball season had come, and Nancy signed him up for a little-league team. A Newtown Bee article from May of that year documents Adam participating in an 8-to-4 victory over the team sponsored by Connecticut Dental Associates. Adam’s team was sponsored by Danbury Hospital.

Some members of Adam’s little league team recall being warned to keep an eye on him; no one was sure where the idea came from — maybe it was his mother — but word had gotten around that Adam might not be able to express pain, if he were to somehow hurt himself. Some teammates were even under the impression that this was because Adam could not feel pain.

* * *

There was family up the street who had a teenage son, Ryan Kraft. Every once in awhile, Nancy would hire him to babysit Adam, so she could get out of the house. Kraft remembers that “the kids seemed really depressed” about their parents breaking up. The older son was thirteen already, and didn’t need any real supervision — but when it came to the younger boy, Kraft found Nancy’s instructions to be unusually vigilant: “Don’t turn your back on Adam. Keep an eye on him at all times. Don’t even go to the bathroom.”

This wasn’t Kraft’s first babysitting gig, and he didn’t see what the big deal was. He did notice that Adam was quiet — how could you not? — and that the boy would get very fixated on a given task, when it fell into his area of focus. “He was in his own world,” Kraft would tell CBS News, remembering the sight of the boy playing video games, or crafting Lego scenes on the carpet. Still, he seemed harmless at first glance. But in some of the rare instances when Adam broke his silence, it began to dawn on his babysitter just why Nancy thought he needed so much attention: when Kraft tried to put Adam to bed early, or when he ended an activity before Adam was ready, the kid would suddenly throw a fit that was totally beyond what he would expect from a nine-year-old; the tantrum looked like something you might see from a much younger child, his rage almost totally unrestrained. Then, there were the rumors around the neighborhood about Adam — that he was “troubled,” and was seeing a school psychiatrist. Things started to fit.

* * *

At the other end of Yogananda Street, there lived a girl who was a student at Sandy Hook School. She came home from the bus stop crying one day. Her mother calmed her down enough to ask what was wrong, and the girl told her about the assignment they had in class, where all of the children composed a “hand poem” — writing words on each of their fingers that expressed how they felt about themselves. The girl had become upset because she rode the bus home with the quiet boy who lived at 36 Yogananda, and she had seen what he wrote on his hands: the words “UGLY” and “LOSER.”

Headquarters of the Secret Service — Washington, D.C.

The Secret Service’s Exceptional Case Study Project finally finished their work later that year. 37 teams working 37 shootings all compiled the most important conclusions they had reached, to share with all the schools who were worried they might be next. Co-signing the final report along with the Director of the Secret Service, Bush’s Secretary of Education wrote, “It is clear that there is no simple explanation as to why these attacks have occurred, nor is there a simple solution to stop this problem,” but he assured all who could hear that “the findings of the Safe School Initiative do suggest that some future attacks may be preventable.”

What the Secret Service found confirmed many of the conclusions that the FBI had reached, and they thus strengthened society’s knowledge of the threat it faced: once again, “the shooters” were always boys — who were almost always white — who rarely got in trouble, and often got above-average grades. They usually weren’t “loners” — but they might be perceived as such, especially by themselves. Most of them got their guns from home, and nearly all of them did the deed alone. There was usually some kind of “leakage” prior to the attack — sometimes, enough-so that there was even a chance someone could have averted disaster in time.

Sometimes not.

Most shooters had a specific target in mind (slightly more likely to be a teacher or staff member than another student). Some put together “hit lists” with multiple targets. But either way, none of it seemed to matter once the shooting started: the hit list never matched the victims’ list, and often the shooter had no specific target at all. As the Secret Service researchers wrote, “The target may even be the school itself.”

The Service then turned to the big question — the one that rippled in the wind, raised on a flag over Frontier Middle School, back when the dark season had first dawned: WHY?

More than half of the attackers wanted revenge. Others wanted to “solve a problem.” About a quarter did it out of sheer desperation: to force a change in their life — any change — or simply to commit suicide. A comparable number were seeking attention, or recognition. And bullying was, undeniably, a huge factor; debate would continue to rage over whether it was new, or whether it was being dealt with appropriately in America’s schools, but 71 percent of the shooters the Secret Service looked at “felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.” Their final report lingers on this point:

In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school.

More than half the time, the shooter actually had multiple motives; their attack, in one way or another an attempt to completely abandon their previous identity, presented a solution to what they saw as an array of problems. They wanted to escape their given set of circumstances, which had built over time.

The most common trait of all was that the shooters had experienced a significant “loss” in their life — a “perceived failure or loss of status,” or the end of a friendship or relationship — normal setbacks, but ones the boys weren’t emotionally equipped recover from, and that their school could usually do nothing about.

The shooters did not “snap” — that much was abundantly clear. School shootings were the result of logical planning, and intent. The planning might be poor, and might even have started on the day of the shooting, but almost no one just happened to have a gun with them at school, and decided to start shooting their classmates without thinking it through. Most were planned at least two days prior to the attack. Sometimes, like at Columbine, they took over a year — but there was nearly always a plan.

The director of the Exceptional Case Studies Project — a veteran agent of President Reagan’s security detail — detected a possible explanation why the “snapped” myth persisted: it lessens the burden. “If kids snap, it lets us off the hook,” he said. “[But] if you view these shooters as on a path toward violence, it puts the burden on adults. So believing that kids snap is comforting.”

All of these findings supported a theory that the Secret Service teams had suspected was the case all along: that the school shooters really were the same as the assassins. They were analogous creatures, who just happened to choose a more abstract target for their violence.

And the FBI had been correct about another thing: there really was no “profile.”

Overall, the tone of the Safe Schools Initiative report was encouraging. “In light of these findings,” the team wrote in their conclusion, “the use of a threat assessment approach may be a promising strategy for preventing a school-based attack.” The Secret Service predicted that a community with alert schools, and a well-trained police force, would usually be safe — “if they know what information to look for and what to do with such information when it is found.”