Why the Unabomber Must Die
He sought a soapbox. Execution is the only way to be sure he'll never have one.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, January 6, 1998
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post last week editorialized against the death penalty for alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. It was the least they could do for one of their writers.
All right, I'm not being completely fair here. After all, when the Times and the Post collaborated in publishing the Unabomber's 35,000-word manifesto, it was at the request of the FBI, which thought--correctly, it turns out--that giving in to his demand for publication might help catch the culprit. But it also gave the Unabomber a national forum for his crackpot views.
I am of the view that simple justice demands the bomber pay with his life for snuffing out three innocent people in his campaign of political terror. But there's another compelling reason why, if Mr. Kaczynski is convicted, he should be put to death as soon as possible: This man must not be rewarded for his alleged crimes by being allowed to become a pundit.
Mr. Kaczynski's reported resistance to an insanity defense suggests that he is interested above all in having his "ideas" taken seriously. And it's depressingly easy to imagine him a few years hence, serving a life term or waiting endlessly on death row, parlaying his barbarous celebrity into a stint as a commentator. These days, a murder conviction can be a helpful credential for a writer seeking a home, say, on the pages of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune or the airwaves of the far-left Pacifica radio network.
Here, I am being completely fair. In 1995 and 1996, the Star-Tribune published three commentary pieces by Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose author's credit cheerfully describes him as "a freelance journalist and inmate on Pennsylvania's death row." Abu-Jamal has also written for the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the (Portland) Oregonian. Last year Pacifica aired 13 of his commentaries on a show called "Democracy Now!," having broadcast an earlier series in 1994 that was slated for National Public Radio, which, in a bout of good sense, backed out.
Abu-Jamal, a black separatist who has become a cause célèbre in the fever swamps of the political left, was convicted in 1982 of fatally shooting 25-year-old Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner. At the time of the 1981 murder, Abu-Jamal was an out-of-work radio journalist driving a taxi. Killing Officer Faulkner certainly proved a good career move for this would-be writer: In addition to his radio and mainstream newspaper work, he has published two books and has written regularly for several black newspapers.
Like Abu-Jamal, the Unabomber capitalized on his crimes to draw respectful attention in major media to his extreme political views--even while he was still at large. In August 1995 the New York Times published an op-ed article by author Kirkpatrick Sale, who, based on prepublication excerpts of the bomber's manifesto, described him as "a rational man [whose] principal beliefs are, if hardly mainstream, entirely reasonable." Mr. Sale urged society to "treat him seriously and publish his manifesto in full" and the bomber to "turn to the hard business of trying to write something persuasive enough, compelling enough, to be published without homicide threats." If Mumia Abu-Jamal can do it, why not?
In his book "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber," David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist who almost died when he opened his mail one day in 1993, describes with heroically restrained outrage "an opinion piece by a journalist in a major newspaper which set my supposed view of technology side by side with the bomber's and compared them, a sort of Christian-versus-lion matchup for the amusement of Sunday readers." Mr. Gelernter is too polite to identify the newspaper or the journalist, but I am not. It was Jefferson Morley in the Washington Post, who opened his article: "Listen to the debate between the Unabomber and the Yale professor maimed by one of his bombs and you will hear a dialogue about America's future."
Debate? The Unabomber tried to blow Mr. Gelernter up! We hear a lot about the decline of civility in American political discourse. But surely civility means at a bare minimum that a bomb is not an argument. When someone starts killing people, the debate is over.
It is all too evident that some in America's citadels of opinion lack the moral sense to distinguish between a pundit and a murderer. Fortunately, juries are not made up of opinion leaders. If the trial now under way in California ends with a conviction and a death sentence, Mr. Kaczynski should be executed with dispatch. If he is not, other aspiring writer/terrorists may follow his example, giving "publish or perish" a chilling new meaning.
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