For 16 years, Ted Kaczynski led the FBI a merry dance, stuffing his intricately crafted parcel bombs with tantalising, impenetrable clues. By 1995, his campaign had struck 16 targets - grad students, computer-store managers, academic experts, an airline executive - and taken three lives. That year he blackmailed The New York Times and The Washington Post into publishing his 35,000-word manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future, which mingled militant libertarianism with environmentalist apocalypse.
This act of ideological hubris proved his undoing. His brother found tell-tale phrases in the manifesto uncomfortably familiar, and eventually led the FBI to Kaczynski's cabin in Montana. In 1998, after resisting his legal team's attempts to plead insanity, Kaczynski was sentenced to life without parole.
For the American media, the Unabomber (a moniker created by the FBI) was both an anti-social freak, a congenital reject, and a representative type, "a product of the 1960s", its "violent extremism" and "anti-American ideologies". But, as Alton Chase shows, Kaczynski was very much a product of the Cold War heyday that preceded the rebellions of the Sixties, and of one of the American establishment's core institutions.
Like Kaczynski, Alton Chase was a bright working-class youth, uneasily transplanted to the Harvard of the late 1950s. He uses this shared experience effectively, and his reconstruction of the ambience of Harvard in this era - an amalgam of class snobbery, Cold War Manicheaism and existential nihilism - is the best part of the book.
Chase asks us to see Kaczynski as an intellectual, someone powerfully motivated by ideas. Much of his book is given over to a genealogy of those ideas. Chase concludes that the contradiction that makes the Unabomber is nothing less than the long-running tension within Western civilisation between humanist universalism and scientific relativism.
As an exercise in the history of ideas, this is far too pat, and as an explanation of the Unabomber it is unilluminating. One could trace the same lineage in the thought of any number of individuals.
Chase's major revelation concerns a Harvard-based psychiatric research programme in which the undergraduate Kaczynski served as an experimental subject. His account of these government-sponsored, abusive investigations is eerie and compelling, but does not establish their impact on Kaczynski. There is no evidence that they transformed the lonely young mathematician into the dedicated serial killer.
Like the media he disparages, Chase subordinates the peculiarities of the Unabomber to his own world picture. In the final chapter, he links this "American terrorist" with both Osama bin Laden and "Kaczynski's anti-globalist allies" - said to include the 300,000 anti-World Trade Organisation protesters at Genoa in 2001. All these, Chase avers, share "a hatred of modernity" and "feel threatened by civilisation".
Ironically, it is Chase, more than Kaczynski, who seems imprisoned within the parameters of 1950s Harvard. He has a distaste for ideology but assumes that his own American liberalism is ideology-free. He routinely deploys the word "evil" as self-evident.
In the end, his argument is too contrived, his history too cartoon-like, to bring us much closer to whatever wider truths lurk behind the Unabomber's extraordinary career.
The reviewer's book about Bob Dylan, 'Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art', is published this month
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