Saturday, April 18, 2020

NetGalley ARC | Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski, and the Capture of America's Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist


I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is a highly engaging account of the search spanning nearly two decades, the longest manhunt in US history, to find Ted Kaczynski. I previously read the book written by Kaczynski's young brother, which I still have to review, and I found them to be necessary I realized, once I had finished this one. I recommend reading both to get a fuller picture of the man who would go on to terrorize the country, only to fade into the background while he further perfected his weapon of choice, then to launch more attacks that killed and wounded so many innocent people. While I do not want this to turn into a review of both books, as my focus here is obviously this ARC, I feel like the account written by David Kaczynski is just as important because we learn so much about their childhood and youth. Those aspects of the story matter.

For those unfamiliar with the case, perhaps because you are too young to remember, or you reside outside of the US, I will quickly recap Kaczynski's crimes. In the late 70s the Unabomber, as the media began calling him (from the FBI name UNABOM, because he was sending BOMbs to UNiversities and Airlines) began sending bombs to random recipients. These arrived both by mail and hand-delivery from the bomber himself. Eventually a task force was created, which would go on to include 150 people working the case, chasing down every possible lead in the hopes of finding the person responsible. The difference between Kaczynski and so many other domestic terrorists is that for the most part he was nearly silent for much of the time that he was sending his devices to his victims. No demands, no wish to speak to authorities. Simply, destruction. It was not until 1995 when Kaczynski penned his 'manifesto' and sent it to various news outlets, insisting it be published, otherwise his spree would continue. More tips than ever came in once the document was published in full, but the big break in the case would not come from an anonymous tipster. Instead, Kaczynski's sister-in-law read it in the paper and showed her husband, David. They went back and forth over whether or not Ted was capable of something so terrible and finally decided to go to the authorities. Within the year the Unabomber would be in custody and his reign of terror over. He eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of parole and will live the remainder of his life behind bars.

I could not put this book down. I have vague memories of hearing about the Unabomber on the news, and I recall being frightened by the police sketch, I think in part because he looked so normal and could have been any average Joe walking down the street. I was 13 when he was finally apprehended and remember hearing about it, but again only vaguely. My memories are much clearer in regards to events like Waco (1993) and Oklahoma City (1995). I think part of the reason is because Kaczynski operated for so long, with sometimes a few years between bombings, that he was not always front page news. The opposite is true for Waco and OKC; I remember watching footage of the Waco siege day after day, wondering what it all meant and when it would end. And then came the Oklahoma City bombing. I will never forget watching as a twelve year old, the bodies of all those children, all those babies, carried from the wreckage, grown men and women weeping at the sight of the destruction.

Through this thoroughly-researched work then was I able to understand as a adult what I did not as a child: this guy was really fucking dangerous. And he was really, really good at what he did, hence why it took so long to capture him. Kaczynski made everything himself, and what he couldn't make (like batteries) he removed all possible traces of any information that could signal where it was purchased, what factory it was made in, etc. There were no finger prints, no identifying marks of any kind, and he was brilliant enough to be able to create a complex bomb that could handle being tossed about by US mail on its way to its destination, going off when and only when he intended it to. And when I say brilliant, I do mean brilliant. Kaczynski is a certifiable genius, having finished high school at the age of 16 and enrolling in Harvard where he earned his Bachelor's Degree. From there he went on to the University of Michigan for both a Master's and a PhD. He taught at UC-Berkeley until 1969, when he abruptly quit and went off to live in his cabin in Montana. There he would begin his journey, perfecting his bombs as they became more and more complex. Kaczynksi is a math prodigy, a true wunderkind, and there are a few theories as to how he evolved into a terrorist.

As for the writing itself, there was some repetitiveness to the author's words that was bothersome, but not enough to lose a star over. For the most part I do not like when authors insert themselves in the story and here and there this was the case as she referenced her father's work, her time as a prosecutor, etc. I understand this was probably an attempt to provide her own credentials of sorts as to why she should be writing this particular book, but I found it unnecessary. She is an excellent writer and that alone qualifies her, without all the extra. One last thing that bothered me was the sections relating to Comey and Clinton's emails in the epilogue. I understand again that this was kind of a summary of the FBI since the Unabomber's capture, but it was still not needed. While the author is correct in what she said, that it was not Comey's place as the head of the FBI to do as he did in those weeks leading up to the election, it felt very out of place in the book.

Even so, there were many things the author did right. The amount of research and locating of primary sources must have taken an extraordinary amount of work. There were also many interviews with key members of the task force who put their blood, sweat, and tears into this case. As the years went on, getting assigned to UNABOM was seen as the place where careers went to die. Thank goodness for the many men and women who worked tirelessly to track down every lead, and find any scrap of evidence they could. Their effort may not have yielded the information needed to finally identify him, but they never gave up, even when it would have been easy to do so.

Highly recommended.


  1. Sounds excellent. I'll add it to my Wish List. Did she say much about *why* he did it? What did he hope to achieve? He was anti-technology wasn't he?

    1. Yes, he thought technology was basically ruining our lives. There is a lot of information about an psychological study he participated in at Harvard. Those chosen to participate were asked to write an essay detailing their own personal philosophies and worldviews. From there, students were then subjected to interrogation techniques, the likes of which would absolutely not fly today and would be considered abusive and unethical if anyone even attempted the same study today. For three years Kaczynski participated and even later said it was the worst experience of his life. Subjects were attached to electrodes and seated in front of bright lights, while the examiners used the information fro their essays to attack them. This would be incredibly stressful for anyone, let alone a 16 year old super genius. It is interesting that he never once sent any of his bombs to Harvard and the point made in the book and elsewhere I think is that he did not want this study to be blamed for his decisions. He kept participating in the study because he didn't want them to view him as having been "broken" by it. I believe it started here, but was not the cause. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and it is definitely possible the experiment triggered it. Kaczynksi refused an insanity plea and insisted on being examined before the trial to prove he was not crazy. I think you would definitely like this book.

  2. Oh yes, I was thoroughly scared when the Unabomber was sending the random packages. It does sound like the author handled the facts and story well.

    1. Definitely. It was interesting to see the investigation from the inside, and to find out why it was so hard to find him. He is a certifiable genius and covered his tracks so well. I am not sure they would have ever found him had he not written the manifesto and insisted that it be published.

  3. I did not know much about this crazy guy. Thanks for your review.


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