Ted Kaczynski, as you probably know, was “the Unabomber.” His proficiency with creating bombs delivered through the mail was gruesome; many died from shrapnel and concussion opening a bomb, and they were absolutely innocent of any reasonable charge. His mentality was like something you would see in a high-ranking member of the Nazi party. He was extremely intelligent but had the morality of a sociopath. Quite a dangerous creature he was. Here is the story of his brother, David, who faced a moral dilemma about whether or not to turn his brother, the murderer, in. The topic of moral dilemmas is a most interesting and evocative one, so strap in.
By all accounts, David is a very nice and humane person. One might even say that moral dilemmas are cruelest when the afflict the gentle and the sensitive. One can even envision Ted as, at one point, a kid who needed nurturing and care, especially as life began to batter him about, like it does to us all, and he began his descent into a grotesque form of mental illness. Michelle Dean writes in The Guardian: “the notion of David as the “good brother” proves hard to shake. Much of what he has done in the aftermath of the Unabomber frenzy – which consumed a few years of his life – bears a trace of altruism. He spent many years working, for example, as a director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. Even the book itself is posited as a kind of public offering. The first chapter ends on a note of fatalistic offering: ‘May it be of some benefit!’”
So you can probably imagine that with David being a benevolent person, and Ted, then, a monster (he mail-bombed over 20 people, in case you don’t know the case), the decision as to whether to turn his brother Ted in, was a very difficult one. Ted needed to be stopped, no doubt. But David feared the FBI would bungle the operation and kill his brother, and he imagined that the death penalty would surely be his fate if convicted. So it goes with moral dilemmas: they are perplexing and difficult because they make us choose between two unattractive options. The idiom “between a rock and a hard place” was created to describe moral dilemmas. If it were an easy choice – when emotion propels us to take action, it can be easier. Moral dilemmas are the epitome of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” or choosing the least-worst option. Happily, moral theories and being in the habit of acting rightly can assist us in times of minor or major crisis.
David and Ted have certain similarities, making it that much more of a moral dilemma as to whether it was right or wrong to turn Ted in. He says: “I think Ted and I are more alike than most brothers, but also more different than most brothers. We represent a curious mix of similarities and differences. We both loved nature and we both traveled off the beaten path of American cultural norms regarding lifestyle, career, marriage, and family. For many years I admired Ted and sought to emulate him. Ultimately, however, I rejected his bleak view of culture and people generally as a dead-end road, while he rejected my fundamental optimism about people as wishful thinking.”
Ted was a murderous pseudo-man, but he was also very well-educated, somewhat accomplished, and schizophrenic. It brings up mixed feelings for me to reflect on my desire to have him punished severely and to be granted mercy. If you were to see a photo of a woman with shrapnel stuck in her face, causing her to bleed to an agonizing death for no good reason, you would feel vengeful, too. However, Michelle Dean shares this about Ted, which makes you feel some empathy, and pity: “We also already knew that the one formative event that seems to explain why Ted Kaczynski descended into isolation and schizophrenia happened when he was nine months old. He had developed a rash, and the hospital would not let his parents stay with him. He was often pulled, screaming, from his mother’s arms. Wanda Kaczynski believed that that event had caused a lot of Ted’s problems, and had gone so far as to point it out to the FBI the first time she was interviewed by them.” NOTE: schizophrenia is not particularly associated with violence. They tend to be deluded, or plagued by hallucinations, but it tends to cause one to be the type who would talk to oneself, lose jobs, maybe develop an alcohol addiction, not murder people.
As if an incident that jeopardized Ted’s attachment to his mother wasn’t serious enough, he had a number of anomie-type experiences growing up. The worst thing that probably could have happened to the poor adolescent did: he was, essentially, tortured by the CIA under the auspices of psychological research at Harvard University – a program about which the school that is supposed to value truth above all else should be eternally ashamed. Don’t even get me started on the wantonly immoral behavior on the part of the CIA caught in a Cold War/McCarthyite/Social Darwinian fog. This is all hard to believe, but true. Read about it here. Jonathan D. Moreno says: “During Kaczynski’s sophomore year at Harvard, in 1959, he was recruited for a psychological experiment that, unbeknownst to him, would last three years. The experiment involved psychological torment and humiliation, a story I include in my book Mind Wars: Brain Research and the Military in the 21st Century.” It is a sad commentary on both humanity and America that the Unabomber was created amongst us. Indeed, a better society would have cared for him, as we need to care for other mentally ill individuals. Sociopaths, as you might know, are not born, but develop. A nurturing, responsive, custom-made, scientifically-informed society can get boys and girls back on track so that they suffer less, and, as the story of the Unabomber shows, community members suffer less as well.
Asked why he took so long to come to grips with his brother’s mental illness, David Kaczyinski replied: “Mental illness carries a heavy social stigma, which was even more pronounced in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the prevailing psychological theory held that schizophrenia is caused by family dysfunction—usually bad parenting. Fortunately, the science has advanced since then, even if social attitudes have lagged behind somewhat. In any case, stigma can lead to denial. What parent wants to acknowledge that their child is mentally sick, especially if doing so means admitting that the whole family is probably sick as well? I also think it’s difficult to connect someone you live with to a clinical diagnosis. To me, Ted was my brother, a unique individual, not a label in a book.”
None of this was easy for David. He notes: “In a universe of unlimited spatial and temporal dimensions, you are brought together with your brother in a unique and specific consanguinity. You come from the same womb. Your family has a certain flavor or smell unlike any other. It has an ethos, perhaps even a mythology all its own. You are a we with your brother before you are a we with any other. Even your parents’ we can be turned against you.” That is touching. I’m afraid the moral dilemma he faced was a wrenching one. He didn’t want his brother hurt, and knew the FBI could really screw the pooch with its apprehensions.
When asked: How did your and [your wife] Linda’s Buddhist practice help you come to the decision to go to the FBI with your suspicions about Ted?, he answered: “Linda was originally attracted to the ethical theories in Buddhism. In addition to the moral arguments that Linda used to spur me to action (that my brother was creating incalculable harm, and that we’d share the moral responsibility for his actions if we failed to stop him) she also invoked the Buddhist idea of karma—that a person who hurts others actually does more harm to himself in the long run. In this way she helped me to understand that Ted was damaging himself morally, psychologically, and spiritually with each act of violence. We needed to stop Ted for his own good as well as to protect others.” Moral dilemmas can be difficult and even agonizing, but having a good grip on an ethical theory can help.
David’s bio is most interesting. From the publisher of his memoir: “David Kaczynski is the past Executive Director of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery located in Woodstock, New York. An anti-death penalty activist, Kaczynski served as the Executive Director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty from 2001 to 2012 and has given hundreds of public talks throughout the United States about mental illness, the death penalty, and healing in the aftermath of tragic violence. He is also the author of the poetry chapbook A Dream Named You.”
In this article, the case of the moral dilemma faced by David Kaczynski is nicely highlighted.
Here is a Q&A with David
This is certainly an interesting story.
Here is an 8-part series on The Discovery Channel about the hunt for The Unabomber that I was quite engrossed in.