Forensic Psychology

Mental Illness and the Law

Who was the Unabomber?

Ted Kaczynski was strange even as a young child. As a six-month-old infant, he suffered a severe allergic reaction, breaking out in hives all over his body. He was in and out of the hospital for the next eight months, separated from his mother. From the time he returned home, he was unresponsive to human interaction. Throughout his childhood, he was extremely shy and painfully averse to human contact, especially with strangers and other children. At the same time he was extremely talented at mathematics, and single-mindedly focused on mastering mathematical problems.

Although he was never diagnosed, this description is certainly suggestive of autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Evidently, his mother considered this possibility as well, and thought of sending him to Bruno Bettelheim, a famous psychoanalyst who specialized in autism.

Kaczynski entered Harvard at age 16, received his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Michigan, where he performed brilliantly, and then accepted an academic position at the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, the teaching ¡0 requirements were too much for him; he was simply incapable of managing the interpersonal demands. He left Berkeley and, with his brother, bought a cabin in the Montana woods. He moved in there alone and became increasingly isolated, even cutting off contact from his mother and brother.

As he cultivated the skills to become entirely self-sufficient in the wilderness, he also developed his anti-technology ideology. For years he had become disillusioned with technology and disgusted with human destruction of the natural world. He came to believe that the only way to destroy the “techno-industrial system” was by violent resistance, so in the late 1970s he began a bombing campaign against people linked with technology, including science and engineering professors, computer store owners, and the airline industry. The FBI named him UNABOMB: university and airline bomber.

Over the next 18 years, he sent 16 bombs, injuring 23 people and killing three. In 1995, he published a manifesto, outlining his anti-technology ideology. His brother David recognized Kaczynski’s writings from the manifesto and eventually contacted the FBI. Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1996. His defense attorneys entered an insanity plea and a court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. Kaczynski vigorously rejected this diagnosis, as he did not want his political mission to be dismissed as the rantings of a psychotic man. He plead guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole but was spared the death penalty because of his brother’s intervention.

Was Kaczynski insane? He almost certainly had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder of some kind. However, he was very clear about his intentions and could rationally argue the merits of his violent acts. Whether or not he was mentally ill, he clearly had criminal intent.


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