Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber who over 20 years ago killed three and injured another 23 in mail bombs, is in the news again. Imprisoned since 1998, US marshals have decided to auction off some of the terrorist’s belongings, including his handwritten 35,000-word manifesto decrying that “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” and his Harvard diploma.
Victims’ rights groups favor the sale because money raised will go to those still owed compensation; others object that the material will no longer be available for scholars’ scrutiny. In the minds of others, the auction is simply ghoulish. This seems to be an instance in which a compromise is possible: Kaczynski’s diploma (and some items of clothing) don’t have intrinsic scholarly value, so they can be sold without interfering with historical research. The original manifesto is another matter and should be preserved for further study. As for the auction being morbid—it may be, but victims of Kaczynski’s bombs rightfully deserve compensation and this appears to be the only feasible way in which they will get paid.
The propriety of the auction is the least of the ethical issues surrounding Kaczynski. Moral problems began at Harvard, where Kaczynski was a student and a volunteer for a study conducted by Henry Murray, a noted psychologist at the university, who was also a consultant to US spy agencies. In the particular study in which Kaczynski took part, volunteers thought they were engaged in philosophical debates around personal matters, but the real purpose of the research was to determine stress levels, a piece of knowledge that was thought to be helpful in fighting the Cold War. After writing personal essays and engaging in the philosophical debates with other participants, students were strapped to a chair, then interrogated, yelled at, humiliated and belittled while sitting under bright lights, referring back to their essays and their remarks during the discussions. Films of the students, often in tears and trembling, were played back to further degrade them down through ridicule.
When Murray retired from Harvard, he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association and the Gold Medal Award for lifetime achievement from the American Psychological Foundation. When Kaczynski left Harvard he suffered permanent psychological harm. Participation in the experiment, his lawyer and others claim, was a major cause of his mental instability, paranoia and extreme political views.
Such a study could not be done today, as guidelines for such brutal experiments involving human subjects would forbid it. That such prohibitions didn’t exist when Murray did his multi-year research doesn’t mean that his work should be put in the same category as the Tuskegee airmen’s syphilis experiment and forced sterilization for reasons of eugenics.
Still another moral issue surrounds the publication of Kaczynski ‘s manifesto in the Washington Post, all eight pages of it, at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000, after the NY Times received the document with the note stating that if either the Times or the Post published it, mailing bombs would cease. The decision to publish was made on the basis that by widely circulating the piece, someone might find in it clues that would reveal the Unabomber’s then still secret identity. This wasn’t an easy decision for the papers to make, as it pitted journalistic independence against becoming an arm of law enforcement or opening the door to blackmail, but on balance it was the right one. Journalistic integrity wasn’t compromised and the publication played a part in Kaczynski ‘s identification.
The information that led to Ted Kaczynski ‘s capture came from his brother, David. David had had suspicions that the Unabomber was Ted but with the manifesto before him, he could no longer rationalize. With his wife’s prodding, he was now convinced that it was his brother who was the long sought after terrorist.
David made one of the most difficult choices anyone can make and went to the FBI to help them locate his brother. David faced a classic moral dilemma: loyalty to a family member vs. protecting the innocent from harm. When the evidence made it incontrovertible to him that it was Ted who was the Unabomber, he made up his mind and came down on the side of being a good citizen.
In reporting to the FBI, David insisted upon two conditions and the bureau agreed. The first was that his identity as the informant not be revealed and second, that his brother would receive proper psychiatric treatment. Both conditions were violated. David’s name was leaked to the press and the government initially pressed for the death penalty. While the government reneged on its promises, David went beyond what was required of him. He took most of the $1 million in reward money and gave it to the victims’ families.
David feels betrayed by the government, as well he should, and while he is distressed about his disloyalty to his brother, he is sure that choosing the greater good over loyalty to his brother was the correct moral decision.
If only the same could be said about the Department of Justice. It isn’t too late for the government to apologize to David Kaczynski nor is it too late for Harvard to condemn the horrendous experiment carried out under their auspices.
Nor is it too late for the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Foundation to rescind the accolades they bestowed on Henry Murray. For the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to continue to give its annual Henry A. Murray award “for distinguished contributions to the study of lives” is an embarrassing moral lapse.