David Kaczynski: His Brother's Keeper
Published in The Catholic Observer, February 2007
By Mark E. Rondeau
WILLIAMSTOWN — David Kaczynski wrestled for months with an ethical dilemma few of us will ever face.
In 1996, he decided to tell the FBI his suspicion that his beloved but troubled older brother, Ted, was the long-sought Unabomber.
David’s wife, Linda, noticed in the fall of 1995 some similarities between news reports about the Unabomber and details of Ted’s life. She brought this to David’s attention and stood by him as he tried to rule his brother out as a suspect and agonized over what to do.
“We found ourselves in a place where anything we did could lead to somebody’s death,” David said. For one thing, Ted could kill somebody else if he was the bomber and they did not act.
“On the other hand, these were capital crimes. That meant that if Ted were arrested and convicted there was a likelihood that he would be sentenced and eventually put to death,” he added. “What would it be like trying to go through life with my own brother’s blood on my hands?”
Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, spoke January 21 at St. Patrick’s Church here to an audience of high school religious education students and adults.
“I’m not really here to talk to you primarily about the death penalty,” he said. “It’s also a story that deals with a host of other issues, including issues of mental illness, issues of family, issues of responsibility, issues — maybe even more importantly — of ethical decision making.”
Between 1978 and 1995, the bomber mailed or planted 17 explosive devices, killing three people and seriously injuring 24. The word “Unabomber” derived from the FBI code name for the case, chosen because targets included universities and airlines. The bomber mostly targeted people connected to technology, ranging from scientists to corporate executives to a computer store owner.
In 1995, in an attempt to generate leads in the case, The Washington Post published the Unabomber’s 35,000-word “manifesto.”
Reading a portion of the manifesto online on a public library computer was the first step David took after Linda — who teaches philosophy at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. — told him of her suspicions.
David started doing more and more research about the Unabomber. “I was looking for something that would rule Ted out as a suspect. I mean some information that would put the Unabomber here when I knew Ted was someplace else.”
Eventually the couple decided to hire an expert to compare the Unabomber's manifesto with letters Ted had sent over the years. David could not just call Ted up to talk, for his brother lived in a cabin in the mountains of Montana and had no phone or electricity.
David had a hard time at first believing his brother could be the bomber, partly because he had never known him to be violent.
Seven years older than David, Ted had once shown much promise. He had been admitted to Harvard at age 16 and had taught mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley.
“He was a brilliant man. A rising star who was going to be something some day. He published original papers in mathematics,” David said. “And then he was hit by schizophrenia, which is a serious mental illness.
“Within two years he was living in a small 10-by-12-foot shack in the mountains in Montana, basically alone, basically a hermit. At first I wasn’t so concerned,” he said. “But over time his letters to us became more peculiar, more obsessed with technology.”
Ted began writing very angry letters to their parents, who had always been very loving. “Why Ted would be so angry at them for no particular reason after so many years was troubling to me,” David said. “And eventually we got to the point of thinking ‘Well, Ted is ill, he’s got a sickness. He’s not rational.’ ”
“So Linda had a good reason to think that Ted had problems. I just couldn’t believe that he could be the Unabomber.”
One morning David woke up from a terrible nightmare with a crushing sense of depression. As the cobwebs cleared, “I realized it wasn’t a nightmare,” he said. “I was actually considering the possibility that my brother was the most wanted person in America.”
David sent Ted a letter saying he wanted to visit him. Ted’s letter in response was a complete rejection of any further contact with his brother.
The expert who compared Ted’s letters to manifesto reported to David that there was a 60 percent chance they were written by the same person. David decided to contact the FBI.
"If I had to boil down our decision to one word, the word I would use is 'responsibility,' " he said. "We certainly weren't responsible for what Ted did. We weren't responsible for the situation we found ourselves in. We hadn't chosen to be in that situation, but we had to respond to it."
David found that turning in the brother he loved was emotionally devastating both before and after Ted was arrested. Part of his concern was for his 79-year-old mother, Wanda.
Watching television “they showed the pictures of my brother being arrested. At this point he weighed 122 pounds. His clothing was utterly ragged. I’ve never seen a street person who looked as bad as my brother did,” he said. “We’re sitting there, our hearts are going out to him. I think: ‘Oh, Ted, it’s come to this.’ ”
It was clear that Ted was the Unabomber. In fact, the FBI had discovered another completed bomb in his mountain cabin. The question of whether he lived or died hinged on his mental condition.
“Was he mentally ill or not? We thought that we had strong evidence that he was,” David said. “We had consulted with psychiatrists long before his arrest about the strange behavior. They talked about mental illness.”
But the criminal justice system is almost like a sporting event — each side tries very hard to win. The federal government hired a psychiatrist who always testifies for the prosecution in cases and always denies or minimizes the mental illness of the defendant, David said.
“Now, this wasn’t about truth and justice anymore. It was about winning and losing and the media and politics. And I felt kind of betrayed on that level.”
Though federal prosecutors had sought the death penalty, they offered Ted a deal in the middle of the trial: life in prison without parole in exchange for a guilty plea.
Since the trial, David has become close friends with one of Ted’s victim’s, Gary Wright. They are working on a book together about their very different experiences of the case, and even make joint appearances speaking against the death penalty.
Is support for the death penalty declining in the U.S.?
“Well, certainly we’ve seen some of that in the polls. I know Catholics in particular have dropped their support for the death penalty to under 50 percent. And I think Pope John Paul’s leadership on that has been very significant,” David said. “In general, we see a weakening, and I attribute it mostly to the news about the numbers of innocent people who have been sentenced to death.
“We have four pretty well-documented cases of innocent people who’ve actually been executed,” he said. “With the death penalty there’s absolutely no margin for error. If you have the death penalty, sooner or later you’re going to wind up executing an innocent person.”