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Customer Review

28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking but Not Convincing, June 23, 2003
This review is from: Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist (Hardcover)
This is a difficult book to review without getting into a deep conversation on all matters philosophical, cultural and personal.
This is the story of Theodore Kaczynski, and it is fraught with irony. Here's A Ph.D. in mathematics with a highly scientific mind who attacks science with science (in this way he could be labeled a "metaphysician"); a man who would destroy people to save them from "the system"; a student of the humanities (literature, languages, philosophy, history) who acts inhumanely; a loner who would rather be in the wilds of Montana but now finds himself in the belly of the beast he so hated. His dissertation was on "Boundary Functions" but it seems that for all his breakthrough thinking, he malfunctioned at the moral boundary.
Finally, here is a man who dismisses morals as "mere" emotions that are irrational and without an objective, scientific foundation, who at the same time was driven by the emotions of rage, anger and revenge. If emotions and morals are invalid in the service of humanity, certainly they are invalid in the pursuit of destruction.
Alston wants to place a lot of the responsibility for the Kaczynski's anger on the General Education curriculum then taught at Harvard. I thought it strange that the books and authors Chase mentions are books by my idols! But I draw very different lessons from the works of Dostoyevsky, Melville and Mumford than does Chase. There is a lot that can be said about the Gen Ed curriculum, but based on an intense personal experience with most of the writers mentioned here, I know them to embrace humanitarian ideals and to move beyond despair. To lay the causative influence of the Unabomber here is mistaken.
The author asks: "Is intelligence evil?" Answer: No, of course not. Intelligence is a tool. Chase gives us only half of the picture when he lists all the tyrants and genocidal killers who are intelligent without also listing all the brilliant people who benefited humanity - whether that be in science, the humanities, medicine or religion. The very question is dangerous, for the anti-intellectual class would pick up on that immediately and march forth under this banner that ignorance is bliss, that the intelligent are wicked, that books should be burned, etc. etc.
Then there is Henry Murray. So what if his favorite book is Moby Dick and he has interesting nocturnal trysts with his assistant. Odd, but not evil. As far as the "dyad" is concerned, I wasn't there; but it doesn't sound any worse than the standard fraternity or military initiatory hazing. True, the CIA was up to some really strange and evil things that violated the Nuremberg Code it its investigation of mind control techniques, but the dyad does not seem to be one of those. It did use deceit - which is unethical - but otherwise I was surprised by how non-horrific the interrogations were - as presented here.
Chase like Kaczynski seems not to trust psychologists. Perhaps with good reason, since the court appointed psychologist seem to discover whatever the court wants them to discover about Ted's mental state. For the final analysis of Ted's personality, Chase turns to the Enneagram. And the Enneagram is presented as the final word on the type of person Kaczynski is. This is pseudo-science, and the author knows it. While the Enneagram seems to describe Ted rather well, it is hardly scientific. But perhaps that is just as well.
All in all, "Harvard and the Unabomber" was an absorbing read. It touched me in a deeply personal way. As a history of the Unabomber case, it's pretty good. As an analysis of the root causes to explain, "what exactly happened to Ted?" - I think the author injects far too much of his own story into this analysis and doesn't support many of his theories as to why Gen Ed, Harvard or Henry Murray caused Kaczynski to terrorize the system.
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Initial post: Feb 16, 2009 7:34:58 AM PST
This is an interesting and quick read (given it's length) on the Unabomber and his reign of terror. The premise however, as the reviewer has alluded to, that the unethical experiments performed on Kaczynski at Harvard significantly contributed to his anti-social and ultimately violent behavior is really quite a stretch. Relative to other traumatic events/situations that a young person can experience, such as debilitating injury, physical abuse, family divorce, extreme poverty, what Kaczynski experienced at Harvard was rather benign. In fact, Kaczynski's upbringing and early adulthood were decidedly middle class and with the exception of his academic prowess, quite ordinary. Why Kaczynski became the person he did is clearly subject to conjecture, however this book is rather unconvincing in its attempts to tie his academic experiences at Harvard with his later day murderous actions.
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