Manhunt: Unabomber (2017, Netflix)

Manhunt is an intriguing series. It dramatizes the story of Ted Kaczynski, aka the UNABOMBER. Those of us who grew up in the Nineties remember the story of bombs that arrived by mail and exploded in the hands of the recipients. It went on for years and years, the FBI’s most expensive manhunt.

The new Netflix series, Manhunt, is a compelling crime story, but it’s far more. Before he was caught, Kaczynski was actually able to negotiate to have his manifesto printed in the Washington Post. At the time, the public dismissed the manifesto whose premise seemed ridiculous: The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. It was easy enough, back then, to reject Kaczynski as mentally insane, but this Netflix series raises the provocative question: was Ted Kaczynski right?

The character development builds, and it centers, not on Kaczynski but on FBI agent James Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is the maverick who pioneers a new science, a new approach to catching the UNABOMBER. He calls it “linguistic forensics,” and based on the writings of the UNABOMBER, Fitzgerald is able to build an accurate profile of the UNABOMBER and move forward an investigation that had reached a dead end.

Yet in the process of entering inot the UNABOMBER’s head, Fitzgerald finds that the main points strike an eerie chord. It becomes hard to see all of the ways in which technology is used for control or to see the ways in which life in industrial society causes a sense of dehumanization but how we satisfy our psychological suffering with what Kaczynski calls “surrogate activities,” like consuming entertainment media.

“[T]he system has to regulate human behavior closely in order to function,” Kaczynski says. It’s the feeling of being a cog in the machine.  It’s something that most of us largely accept as normative.

Manhunt raises the provocative question but answers it in a rather boring and conventional way. While caught up in the throes of his own conflicts and questions, Fitzgerald is reassured: Don’t worry, Jim, you have empathy, and that’s what makes you different from Kaczynski.

It seems to be a message to those of us watching, and I can’t help but note the irony here: A Netflix show, from our mass media, assures the privileged people that if we only have empathy, we can continue to comfortably assimilate with industrial society, despite all of the death and destruction that industrial civilization has inflicted upon the world.

Maybe it’s irony. Or maybe it’s just a bait and switch.

Manhunt: Unabomber, 2017

Still, to me it’s intriguing. This morning I read an article about the Arctic, how climate change is not merely a present and future tense discussion, it’s also past tense: “climate changed.” The temps way up north have risen by an average of 14 degrees, truly astounding, and it’s almost certainly due to the ramped up carbon emissions of the Industrial Revolution.

But can humankind stop it? At this point, despite our efforts, the answer is a definitive “no.” I blame capitalism.

Kaczynski’s point, though, is wider. He believes that our technological society is inherently unstable and dehumanizing. It’s not just that we are destroying the world, we are destroying ourselves, from within. It’s strange to say it, but I think this makes Kaczynski something of a spiritual terrorist.

Kaczynski’s answer was bombs in the mail. I’m more hopeful that overthrowing capitalism might open a door that allows humankind to develop a more healthy, more sane way of life.

Sitting in his small cabin next to Fitzgerald, Ted knows he’s out of options, and he begins to ponder, at which point he makes what I think is his most compelling case against industrial civilization.

You know, he muses. The irony is, they’re gonna show this cabin as evidence that I’m crazy. But if everyone lived like this, there would be no war, no poverty, no pollution.




This is not the Unabomber cabin. It’s my retreat, in McCarthy Alaska. Kaczynski’s defense wanted to plead insanity: how could a sane person live in such a place?

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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