I'm a serial bomber, published, you know

For the Washington Post, it was not the usual supplement, nor author. Rupert Cornwell reports on the bizarre case of the Unabomber

Rupert Cornwell@IndyVoices
Friday 22 September 1995 23:02

In the end, it came down to the technology which the Unabomber so loathes. The Washington Post had the mechanical capacity to produce a separate section that would carry his manifesto, running to 62 single- spaced sides of foolscap, in a weekday paper. The New York Times did not. Thus it was that there appeared in Tuesday's Post an unusual eight-page supplement, wedged between the small ads and the regular weekly health pull-out.

It was called "Industrial Society And Its Future", a densely argued treatise about the disaster to which industry and technology are driving the modern world. It appeared unadorned, unedited, and for free, courtesy of one of the mightiest papers in the land, just as its author had demanded. The recipient of this remarkable privilege, however, was not exactly your average scribbler, nor for that matter even a Nobel prize winner. Rather, he was the most elusive serial killer of his time, blackmailing his way to one of the more extraordinary coups in the annals of American journalism.

It all started 17 years ago, when the man known only by the FBI codename "Unabom" began a campaign of bomb attacks. His targets were principally people associated with technical colleges, airlines or computer stores; his motive, in as much as any motive was discernible, appeared to be a grudge against modern technology. In 17 years there has been one sighting, outside a Salt Lake City computer store in 1987, based on which an FBI artist sketched the only image of what the bomber might look like. This drawing is almost the FBI's only lead.

Then, in April this year, just after he killed his most recent victim, a timber industry executive in northern California, the bomber's behaviour changed. In quite unprecedented, but typically tantalising fashion, a killer went public.

First he wrote to the New York Times, informing the paper he wanted to tell his story and was working on a document to be published by the Times, by Newsweek or by Time magazine. In return he would cease his attacks. In late June, he sent the manifesto to the Times, to the Washington Post and to Penthouse magazine, giving them three months to publish. If they did so, he told the newspapers, the killings would stop, though he reserved the right to send non-lethal "sabotage" bombs, designed to harm only property.

To Penthouse, whose editor, Bob Guccione, had offered Unabomber a regular column, the terms were slightly different; publication would be followed by one more killing. That same day, 28 June, he half-paralysed Los Angeles airport with a bomb threat, which he later told the New York Times had been a hoax.

At once the consultations started, first among small groups of senior executives and editors, then between a handful of emissaries and the FBI. On 2 August the Post and the Times ran excerpts from the treatise, while responsibility for the final decision shifted to the two publishers, Arthur Sulzberger for the Times and Donald Graham for the Post. On 13 September they met Janet Reno, the Attorney-General, and FBI director Louis Freeh, who urged them to publish. The two papers agreed to do so, "for public safety reasons".

Because the weekday paper is still printed at the old plant in central Manhattan, the Times could only publish a special insert in its larger Sunday edition, which rolls off new presses in New Jersey. But neither Sulzberger or Graham wanted Unabomber to reap Sunday's additional publicity harvest of 600,000 extra copies. So the Post it was that published, on Tuesday, and the two papers split the $35,000 cost of producing the supplement.

None of which, however, quite explains the mystique of the Unabomber. By serial killer standards his accomplishments are modest, three dead and 23 wounded in 16 attacks since 1978: compare that with the 33 murder victims of John Wayne Gacy, who was put to death last year in Illinois, or the 13 women killed by the "Boston Strangler" between 1962 and 1964, or Jeffrey Dahmer who confessed to killing and dismembering 17 young boys in Milwaukee between 1978 and 1991.

None, though, could match him for staying power. Even Dahmer's crimes spanned no more than 13 years. But after 17 years, all we know is that Unabomber is white, male, in his late thirties or early forties, and almost certainly linked to the university world, perhaps in California. Most important, the Unabomber has caught the country's imagination, and not simply because of its curious relish of serial killers. Since he went public in April, this particular specimen has been transformed from murderous psychopath into the Scarlet Pimpernel of mailbombers. A 135-man FBI taskforce may seek him here, there, everywhere, but despite a $1m reward on his head, they've yet to lay a glove on him.

Even Unabombers, of course, do have lucky escapes. On a 1993 communication, investigators found an imprint of a note jotted on a scrap of paper inadvertently lying on top of the sheet used for the letter. It said, "Call Nathan R - Wed 7pm." The FBI contacted 10,000 Nathan Rs across the country, to no avail. Back in 1987 the bomber came closest to capture, when he was seen placing a device at a computer-store car park in Salt Lake City, the 12th of his 16 attacks. The description of a white man with blondish hair, a thin moustache and an anorak hood around his face is the basis of the composite sketch that is still the only likeness we have. If indeed, it is him at all. The letter accompanying the text of the manifesto which the Post, the Times, and Penthouse received on 29 June was taunting: "For an organisation that pretends to be the world's greatest law enforcement agency, the FBI seems surprisingly incompetent. They can't even get elementary facts straight." Americans love that kind of in-your-face cheek, even from murderous psychopaths.

Nor is it hard to sympathise with some of what he says. As semi-scientific treatises go, his is pretty readable (more readable, one might remark, than parts of the increasingly turgid Post). The writing is mostly jargon- free, at times elegant. He can be repetitive - but who isn't in the course of 35,000 words? The conclusion may be daft: "The positive ideal that we propose is Nature. That is, WILD nature. Nature makes a perfect counter- ideal to technology ... Nature (which is outside the power of the system) is the opposite of technology (which seeks to expand indefinitely the power of the system)." But who can entirely shrug off the neo-Orwellian warnings of hi-tech run riot, at the service of government and a shrinking band of mega-corporations, increasingly able to control our behaviour?

And he knows exactly what he's about. "Take us for example. If we had never done anything violent and had submitted the present writing to a publisher, they probably would not have been accepted.... In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people."

FBI specialists have long believed the "we" is a fiction masking a single individual. It's the last sentence which now makes them hope the Unabomber's bloodlust is at last satisfied. The message is out, and not only in the Post. Time Warner has posted it on the Internet, and on Thursday the Oakland Tribune ran the full text. That could prove vital if, as the FBI suspects, their quarry lives in North California and has links with the Berkeley campus, a few miles from Oakland. "The Unabomber may live and work in this area," said the paper. "This makes it a local story for the Tribune's unique Oakland-Berkeley readership." Perhaps a turn of phrase, a line of reasoning in the text will jog somebody's memory. As an FBI man put it, "There's movement now, and movement is what this case needs."

But should the Post, which for all its prestige is utterly unknown on the West Coast, have published? As the US press indulged its favourite pastime of navel-gazing, the argument briefly rumbled through the media establishment. A justifiable move - or merely craven appeasement of a terrorist?

Ultimately, the answer depends on the Unabomber himself, and the riddle of why he has gone so public since April. The FBI suspects a virtuoso is indeed tiring of his deadly trade; critics of the Post and Times contend they have merely gratified a publicity hound, whose success in extracting a free ride from the country's two most distinguished newspapers will only encourage other crackpots to do the same. As Graham acknowledges, there was "no journalistic reason" to run the tract.

If precedent is any guide, the gambit will not work. Contrary to general belief, the Times and the Post were not breaking new ground. A couple of years ago, during the siege at Waco, Texas radio stations played in full a 58-minute rant by David Koresh in the hope that his vanity thus appeased, he would consent to turn himself and his followers over. Back in 1977, the New York Daily News, on police advice, ran a letter from the "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz while he was still at large. Each time, the strategy failed. Koresh did not let his people go, while a Daily News columnist who interviewed Berkowitz in prison concluded that seeing the letter in print "sent his ego out of control" and probably intensified his desire to kill.

Will the tactics prove more successful this time? Sulzberger admits that nothing in the bomber's record suggests he will keep to his word. "But you print and he doesn't kill anyone else, that's a pretty good deal. You print it and he continues to kill people - what have you lost? The cost of newsprint?" Nor, he points out, is it one of those First Amendment, free-speech issues on which the US press adores to pontificate. Publishing the tract "centres on the role of a newspaper as part of a community."

The $35,000 price-tag, moreover, will have been a snip if it saves a life or traps a killer. Thus it was last week that the publishers of the two most powerful US newspapers bowed to the wishes of the country's two most senior law enforcement officials, and made, in Sulzberger's words, the "right choice between bad options". And according to a poll of 135 newspaper editors across the country, six out of 10 agreed with them.

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