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7 minute read
John Elson

Has the technology-hating, mail-bombing murderer known as Unabomber (or Unabomb) got so talkative that he may give himself away? That was one tantalizing question raised last week by a bizarre blizzard of communications from the nation’s most wanted serial killer, which made him almost as visible as if he had publicly emerged from his presumed home in Northern California.

Unabomber is the self-styled anarchist who since 1978 has planted or mailed 16 package bombs that have killed three and wounded 23. Many of the victims were associated with universities or airlines, whence his name. Last week’s first missive was an unsigned typewritten letter that arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday. Its contents were terse, unambiguous and bloodcurdling. “WARNING: the terrorist group F.C., called Unabomber by the FBI, is planning to blow up an airliner out of Los Angeles International Airport sometime during the next six days.” To establish his credentials, the letter’s author cited the first two numbers — 55 — of a nine-digit code Unabomber had earlier given to editors of the New York Times so that they would know they were in touch with the real killer and not a wannabe.

The day after the Chronicle received its threat, an anonymous letter to the Times seemed to call the whole thing off. “Since the public has such a short memory,” this message read, “we decided to play one last prank to remind them who we are. But no, we haven’t tried to plant a bomb on an airline (recently).”

Prank or not, authorities took no chances. The Federal Aviation Authority imposed strict security measures at California’s major airports. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, outbound passengers were required to show identification at every stage of the departure process, from curbside baggage check-in to final boarding. The Postal Service announced that it would not accept any first-class mail in California that weighed more than three-fourths of a pound. Jitters were everywhere. A lawyer on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco was briefly interrogated by the fbi because he bore a passing resemblance to a composite sketch of Unabomber and had been “acting suspicious,” which appeared to mean wearing sunglasses throughout the flight.

The Unabomber’s epistolary masterwork was almost literally a blockbuster. The New York Times, Washington Post and Penthouse magazine all received copies of a single-spaced, typewritten manuscript, 56 pages and 35,000 words long, titled Industrial Society and Its Future. This rambling manifesto, whose authenticity was quickly certified by the FBI, was essentially an indictment of a corrupt technocracy that, Unabomber charged, was crushing human freedom at the behest of a mysterious corporate and governmental alite. In April, Unabomber said he would end his killing spree if TIME, Newsweek or the New York Times would publish a lengthy article telling his story. (So far, neither newsmagazine has received one.) In letters accompanying the manuscripts last week, Unabomber said the bombing would stop if the Times or Post would print the manifesto and three follow-up documents.

Unabomber also sent a letter but no manuscript to Scientific American. It was a critique of a story about particle accelerators, so innocuous that staff members initially failed to twig to its authorship. The letter with Penthouse’s manuscript, by contrast, contained one menacing and macabre touch. Since Penthouse was less “respectable” than the other publications, “we promise to desist permanently from terrorism, except that we reserve the right to plant one (and only one) bomb intended to kill, after our manuscript has been published.” Bob Guccione, the magazine’s headline-happy publisher, volunteered a page to Unabomber for a monthly column if he would stop the rampage.

The Unabomber’s manuscript, to judge from the Times and Post stories, is a farrago of Luddite venom embracing politics, history, science and sociology. It blames many of the world’s present-day problems on the industrial revolution and forecasts an Orwellian future, in which helpless humans are controlled by computers. Unabomber thus advocates a violent rebellion against technological society as the only way to restore what he calls “wild nature.”

In the accompanying letters, Unabomber gave a one-word response to questions about his motive. “The answer is simple: anger.” He also chided the FBI for being “surprisingly incompetent” and denied that an April mail bomb, which killed a lobbyist for California’s timber industry, had been triggered by the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. “We strongly deplore the kind of indiscriminate slaughter that occurred in the Oklahoma City event,” read Unabomber’s letter to the Times-blithely sidestepping the fact that last week’s threat to blow up a passenger plane is perhaps the ultimate indiscrimination.

Unabomber gave the Post and the Times three months to decide whether they would publish his manifesto. At week’s end publishers of both papers declared they were still weighing their options. The Times and the Post, and Penthouse as well, face something of an ethical dilemma. If they publish, they will be acceding to the demands of a mass murderer who may well raise the ante by demanding more space for more manifestos. And they may also be inviting copycat behavior by other lethal social critics. If the publications say no, they could be seen by the public as accomplices to murder if Unabomber carries out his threat. “Why should a trusting relationship be established with an individual who has shown total contempt for human life?” asks Everette Dennis of Columbia University’s Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.

Meanwhile the FBI, Postal Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have beefed up their 150-member, San Francisco-based, Unabomber task force. In Washington and New York City, experts have examined the manuscripts and letters for clues — a giveaway mistake like a fingerprint, the indentation of a phone number on a package — that would provide the identity and whereabouts of the elusive killer. Nothing so far, though, has changed their profile of Unabomber as a single white male, probably in his early 40s, with at least a high school education and some experience, even if indirect, with higher learning. Although Unabomber claims to belong to an anarchist group called F.C., he appears to be a loner and a neat freak, whose deadly packages are constructed with care, even though some elements are homemade.

“He’s probably very, very careful,” says retired fbi agent Louis Bertram, a former member of the Unabomber squad. “He’s not likely to drink a lot. He drives so that he won’t get traffic tickets or put himself in a position to get arrested.” John Douglas, the ex-fbi agent who developed the bureau’s serial-killer profiling technique, sees Unabomber as a hate-fueled obsessive, possibly abused as a child, who uses his ideology as a cover for his will to dominate.

Why, then, has this reclusive assassin suddenly become so vocal? Why is a murderer who carefully targeted his victims by name and occupation now issuing blanket threats? Despite Unabomber’s disdain for the Oklahoma City “incident,” some experts, including Bertram, believe that the bomber feels upstaged by public interest in that case. No longer is he America’s most notorious murder suspect, and that offends his sense of pride and professionalism. There is, of course, a hubristic risk for criminals who feel superior to their hunters: cockiness can breed carelessness. Now that Unabomber has threatened so many more possible victims, including millions of airline passengers, there are a lot more people on the lookout for him. Tips on where he might be are pouring in to the fbi. This would-be savior of the misruled multitudes has now become an enemy of the people.

–Reported by David S. Jackson/San Francisco, Jenifer Mattos and David Seideman/New York and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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