'Headliners & Legends: The Unabomber' premieres Sunday, Dec. 31 at noon ET on MSNBC
Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” terrorized the nation for 18 years. He sent letter bombs to several universities and airlines, killing three people and wounding 23 others. He was the target of the FBI’s largest manhunt at the time, but it was his own younger brother who tipped the FBI off to Kaczynski.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Headliners & Legends, David Kaczynski talks about how he realized the Unabomber could be his own brother once he read the “Unabomber’s Manifesto” after it was printed in the Washington Post.
You can read excerpts from the interview below.
Suspicions about 'Unabomber's Manifesto'
David Kaczynski’s suspicions that his brother Ted could be the Unabomber grew after he compared letters he had received from Ted with the “Unabomber’s Manifesto” printed in the Washington Post. In this excerpt from the transcript of MSNBC’s interview with David, he talks about reading the “Manifesto.”
"I did try to get a copy of the manifesto published in The Washington Post and was unsuccessful. There aren't that many copies sold in upstate New York and those venues that did carry the paper, it had been sold out already by the time I got there. But a week or two later, we actually were able to access part of the manifesto on the Internet. Linda had suggested, since we didn't have the Internet at home that we'd go to her college. You know, that we'd pull up this document. And I said, 'Well, what if...', we actually had to ask the librarians help on how to use the Internet. And I said, 'Well, why are you going to tell them that we're looking up the Unabomber manifesto?' And she says, 'Well, you know, research. I'll say it's research.'
Anyway, we pulled it up. As it turned out, it was only the first six pages of the manifesto that we were able to access that first day. But I remember distinctly kind of looking at the screen and realizing as Linda was sitting next to me but also taking in that she really didn't have her eyes on the screen. She was looking at my face. I think she knew that my face would tell her more than the words on the screen. I knew Ted. She really didn't know him. And believe me, I was all set to read that first paragraph, that first page, find something that disqualified it as Ted's writing. And I'd turn to Linda and say, 'Look, honey, you've been really silly. You know? You know, we're going to laugh about this for a long time.' Unfortunately, I didn't feel that way. I almost felt kind of chilled. It almost felt like the tone-- I'm just talking about the tone of the language, the approach, almost had the feeling for me like one of Ted's angry letters over the years.
And, you know, as we read the six pages and obviously, you know, the Unabomber was the most wanted person in America. There was a million dollar reward. We weren't going to talk about this in the atmosphere of the library. But the moment we left the library, walked out the door, Linda kind of whispered to me, saying, 'Well, what do you think, David? Do you think maybe Ted wrote that?' And I said, 'I'll be honest with you. Some parts of this do sound like Ted. On the other hand, there's some other things that don't sound familiar to me. I can't connect with. You know, if someone, you know, asked me to estimate if I was forced to give an opinion, I'd say maybe there's one chance in a thousand that Ted wrote this.'
And, you know, we were continuing walking along. And Linda gets a little quiet. And she finally says, 'David, one chance in a thousand that your brother's the Unabomber? That's not insignificant. I mean, maybe we need to look into this...'
Linda and I kind of thought that maybe we could find out the truth in the manifesto. Linda's a college professor. I had been an English major. We were both sensitive to language, nuances of language. And I also had saved over the years dozens and dozens, nearly 100 of my brother's letters to me. And some of those letters were addressed to the theme of technology just as the manifesto was.
So we thought perhaps if we read the manifesto again and again and we compare the letters to the manifesto-- perhaps we'll find that it's Ted or it's not Ted. And that went on for a period of weeks. We'd come home from work. I'd come home from my job at the youth shelter. I was assistant director of a youth shelter for runaway, homeless youth. Linda was a college professor. We'd come home. We'd have dinner. We'd talk. And then we'd go to our living room. Sit down side by side on our couch and, you know, one would be reading the manifesto. One would have the letters on the lap. And, you know, we'd be comparing back and forth.
I think there were times I'd look up from that process and think what am I doing? You know, this is bizarre. Come on. My brother's the Unabomber? Have we lost our minds? You know, this can't be possible. But it was a roller coaster. I mean, there would be other days, other moments when I'd think, my gosh, this sounds-- be reading the manifesto and think, wow, this sounds almost exactly like Ted, you know? Am I in denial? Is the truth staring me in the face? Am I just refusing to see the truth because it's so painful?
Oddly enough for me, I think the real break in it all came from something almost internal. It happened within me, not anything we discovered in our research. I remember waking up one morning with this awful sense of, sort of, bleakness and depression. And my first thought as I was awakening was gee, that's the worst nightmare I've ever had in my life. But as the cobwebs melted, as I kind of reoriented to reality, I realized that it's not a nightmare. I'm literally considering the possibility that my brother is the most wanted person in America, someone who has murdered three people.
I remember walking to the breakfast table that morning. Linda had already gotten up. She was sitting there eating some Corn Flakes. It's funny how you remember inconsequential details. And I sat down opposite her and really without intending to say it, it just kind of came out of me. I looked up at her and I said, 'Hon, you know, I think there might be a 50/50 chance that Ted wrote the manifesto.' And you can imagine, Linda was really upset..."
Working with the FBI
Once David Kaczynski realized there was a strong chance his brother Ted was the Unabomber, he had to decide whether to tell the FBI about his suspicions. In this excerpt of the interview transcript David talks about making that difficult decision and working with the FBI once he did:
"We found ourselves in a place where anything we did or didn't do could result in somebody's death. Any choice we made could be fatal to someone. The realization that if we did nothing, there was some chance if this person — if Ted was the Unabomber, he might attack someone else again. We might wake up some morning, and learn that the Unabomber had struck again. We might someday find out Ted was the person that was responsible. If that were to happen, we'd go through the rest of our lives with the knowledge that we could have stopped it. And instead, we had decided to do nothing. If you think about it, we'd have to go through the rest of our lives with the blood of some innocent person on our hands. I mean, that was unthinkable for us. On the other hand, the other horn of this dilemma was the realization that the Unabomber had committed capital crimes. If this was Ted, there was a chance, maybe even a possibility that-- you know, a probability that he would be executed. It was in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Polls had come significantly but, at that point, lots of people in America thinking the death penalty's the answer to these kinds of crimes. And I had to ask myself what would it be like to go through the rest of my life with my brother's blood on my hands?
What if I turned him in? Obviously, that would be a tragedy for him. It would be a tragedy for me, too. But even more than for Ted and me, I thought what a tragedy for mom. You know? At this point, she's a 78 year old widow. For years and years, she had worried about Ted. Because of his estrangement from the family, because of all of these symptoms of mental illness. Because of the helplessness. He wouldn't accept help or advice from us. But believe me, her worst nightmare about what could be wrong with Ted didn't even come close to the suspicion we were struggling with, that he might be the Unabomber, serial murderer, most wanted person in America. And I was terrified that even to mention this to mom could be so crushing, it could be devastating. You know? It might cause a heart attack or a stroke. You know? There was so much at stake in this decision including not only one family member I loved, but our mother, who we also dearly loved and wanted to protect...
It was unbearable to think of waking up some morning, realizing that we hadn't done the right thing and because of it, somebody else had died. The word I guess that ultimately fits best what the decision was made for me would be the word responsibility. We hadn't created the situation. We certainly had nothing to do with Ted's crimes. We hadn't chosen to be in this situation. But you know, life had brought this situation to us. And we had to respond to it. We had to be responsible. We had to protect people if we could...
People on the Unabomb task force were very interested in meeting with Linda and me down in Washington. And so, we made that trip. And the whole first day was kind of interesting. I guess this goes to later why we felt so violated when our privacy was violated. Because, you know, they're talking about things that, gee, I would never tell even close friends about. You know? Intimate, family history. All kinds of things. And you know, I'm just thinking I gotta bite the bullet. You know? We need to stop the Unabomber. If it's Ted, he's gotta be stopped.
And so, I'm sharing all of this really intimate family stuff. Unfortunately, much of that ended up in The New York Times after Ted's arrest. It's quite painful for us. But, at any rate, I remember on the second day, we interviewed for two whole days with three agents there. And at the end of the second day, one of the agents came back... and sat down on the table a topographic map of rural Montana. And he said, 'David, could you show me where your brother's cabin is?'
And I remember kind of walking up to the map and kind of pouring over it. And believe me, you know, the die was cast. We were resolved to the decision was made. There was no going back. We didn't want to go back. But still, it felt like such a painfully decisive moment. Here I am, ultimately putting my finger and saying, 'Well, he lives here.' And realizing in that moment that I could well be sending my brother to his death. That's moment that will never leave me."
Ted Kaczynski's mental illness
David Kaczynski’s experiences with his brother Ted shaped his views of both mental illness and the death penalty. David talks of his growing awareness of Ted’s mental illness in this interview transcript.
"I never really connected with the possibility that we could execute people in this country who are seriously mentally ill. With illnesses like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or major depression. I kind of thought once some of the investigators had said, 'We know that you're brother's mentally ill.' I thought that took the death penalty off the table. I honestly didn't realize that, you know, our system does execute the mentally ill. There's tremendous disconnect between what the law calls insanity and what medicine calls mental illness. And the end result is that sometimes we're executing people who have to be medicated to get them to the point where they're competent to be executed. Happened in an Arkansas case not too long ago.
There's another phenomenon where severely mentally ill people end up serving as their own attorneys at trial. In any case, you know, if you're representing yourself, you're probably not a very good attorney. You know, you got a bad attorney if you're representing yourself. But, if a mentally ill person is representing themselves, there's no justice here. And you know, I think the whole system has come crashing against the reality of mental illness. Doesn't know how to deal with it and so has created some sort of boxes and categories. But the end result is that we're doing a serious, serious injustice. Locking up people in jails who really need to be in mental institutions. And in some cases, actually executing people who are clearly delusional at the time of their crimes...
If there's something to be learned out of it, I think it's that understanding can go so far in terms of healing people who have been through trauma. And also in terms of what society needs to do to recognize the humanity of people who are mentally ill and make a commitment to providing them with effective treatments and treating them with compassion. I've met with so many other families. When I give talks around the country, I can't tell you how many times-- hardly ever does a talk go by when I'm not approached by someone who comes up to me and says, 'You know David, my sister or my brother or my mother or my son has a mental illness. So, I felt such compassion when I heard your story because, believe me, I can identify with it. I know what you're struggle has been like.'
"And the truth of the matter is that there are a whole lot of people out there. We're never more than, you know, one or two degrees removed from someone with a serious mental illness. And most of these people are people who are decent, fine people. Even those who get into trouble get into trouble because of the illness, not because in some sense they're evil or bad people."
I think the answer for me, I think the answer for many people who've been through tragedies involving violence is to try to create some form of constructive response. You know, not to wallow in bitterness. But to say, you know, 'Look, we can learn something by this. We all have to be our brother's keepers, our sister's keepers. We have to care about each other.' The lines of compassion are not just drawn narrowly around the family. They have to be drawn around the community. We have to learn as human beings when bad things happen to find the better parts of ourselves and to take away something from those experiences that is ennobling not diminishing."
David is now a leader of an organization opposed to the death penalty, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty: http://www.nyadp.org/main/home