The Politics of Insanity

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The arrest last week of a fanatic pro-Trump Floridian named Cesar Sayoc for mailing fourteen pipe bombs to prominent critics of Our Fearless Leader prompted an immediate and predictably divisive reaction in the American body politic.

That debate had barely begun when a rabid, AR-15-wielding anti-Semite named Robert Bowers—enraged by Trump’s depiction of a “caravan” of allegedly dangerous migrants headed toward our southern border—slaughtered eleven Jews in the midst of worship in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the worst mass murder of Jews in American history. Bowers left messages on social media blaming Jews for abetting what Trump called the migrant “invasion,” and after a gunfight with police continued to spout anti-Semitic invective even as Jewish doctors treated his wounds.

In assessing these tragedies, the left called Trump out for the role played by his incendiary rhetoric, his hyperventilating demonization of his enemies, and—most pointedly—his open encouragement of violence by his supporters. The right blithely dismissed any connection, suggesting that both Sayoc and Bowers are mentally ill: “crackpots,” whose actions can’t be blamed on Trump.

In my essay last week, Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System, I staked out my position on the question. You can guess what it was.

And by the by, overshadowed by these two crimes was a third that completed the week’s appalling trifecta: the cold-blooded murder of two African-Americans by a white killer in a Kroger supermarket in Jeffersontown, KY, near Louisville. That’s what life in the US in 2018 has come to: a horrific, homicidal hate crime like that barely even makes the news. The Jeffersontown killer, a man named Gregory Bush, murdered those two people only because he had failed to gain entry to a predominantly black church shortly before. Had he succeeded, we might have had twin racially-motivated mass murders in a synagogue and a Christian church in the same week.

Is America great again yet? Wake me when it is.

I don’t know the respective mental states of Mr. Sayoc, Mr. Bowers, and Mr. Bush; medical doctors will determine that, or at least offer informed opinions. But as these three men make their way through the criminal justice system over the coming months, we will wrestle with the issue that the GOP instantly gravitated to, one that could get a lot thornier still if more acts of right wing violence take place (which seem to me more likely than not, were I a betting man):

Where is the line between homicidal acts driven by mental illness and political terrorism as carried out by admittedly violent but nonetheless rational actors?

There is no better case study than that of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber.


Ted Kaczynski was an academic prodigy who skipped two grades and entered Harvard at age 16. A shy, introverted boy from a provincial Polish-American family in a working class Chicago suburb, he was badly out of place at the Fair Harvard of the late 1950s, then still a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege. But for Kaczysnki, the truly lethal turn came when he was plucked out of the student body to be part of a grossly unethical behavioral experiment conducted by Dr. Henry Murray, one of the most famous and accomplished psychologists of the time (and still—shockingly—esteemed by many in his field to this day).

During World War II Murray had been a lieutenant colonel in the OSS, conducting work on interrogation and torture/counter-torture techniques as part of agent assessment and training. After the war his research continued, secretly funded by the newly-founded CIA, which was looking for any possible edge in the Cold War, to include what is colloquially called “mind control” and “brainwashing.” As part of this particular Murray experiment, the still-teenaged Ted Kaczynski—along with 21 other young Harvard men likewise chosen for their “outcast” profiles—was subjected to inhumanly savage psychological abuse designed to destroy the individual’s sense of self.  There is also speculation that he was dosed with LSD without his knowledge in conjunction with the CIA’s infamous MK Ultra program.

It is undeniably true that of the 22 young men subjected to Dr. Murray’s Manchurian Candidate-style experiments, only Kaczynski went on to become a serial killer. So even as appalling and unethical as it was, that experience can’t be definitively tagged as the Rosetta Stone of his murderousness. But it damn sure didn’t help.

What was it in Kaczynski’s background, DNA, or life experience that triggered him and not the others? Books have been written on the matter. (I recommend Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber.) A gut-wrenching incident of months-long hospitalization and forced separation from his mother in his infancy, followed by a permanent change in his personality and demeanor, is considered another strong contributor.

We do know that after Dr. Murray french fried his brain, Kaczynski slipped slowly into homicidal obsession even as he graduated from Harvard, earned a PhD in mathematics at Michigan, and became one of the youngest professors ever at UC Berkeley. (His journals show his first recorded homicidal thoughts while he was still an undergrad.) Walking the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s, young Prof. Kaczynski was filled with contempt for the hippies and left-wing student radicals who surrounded him, and who likely viewed the laughably square young mathematician the same way. It’s doubtful any of them imagined that within his tortured mind plans were germinating for acts of violence far more memorable than anything their own movement would ever carry out.

Kaczynski soon left Berkeley and eventually retreated into a hermetic existence in a cabin in the hills of Montana, embracing an anarcho-primitivist philosophy that held industrialization and technology to blame for mankind’s ills. In 1978 he mailed the first of sixteen pipe bombs, sent to a somewhat arbitrary target list of academics, business executives, and lobbyists, among others. Over the next 17 years he killed three people (you thought it was more, didn’t you?) and wounded another 23.

Toward the end of his bombing campaign, Kaczynski used the threat of further murders to blackmail the New York Times and Washington Post into publishing his 35,000 word “manifesto” (as the press inevitably dubbed it), more formally known as Industrial Society and Its Future. In a Shakespearean twist, Kaczynski was caught only because his younger brother David recognized Ted’s verbiage and ideology, and—though tormented at the thought of betraying his brother—reached out to the FBI.

But what is really germane to our discussion is what happened after Ted Kaczynski was arrested.


After Kaczynski’s capture, a vision of him quickly took hold in the public imagination: the wild-haired, wild-eyed “hermit” holed up in a ramshackle cabin in the wilderness, scrawling his lunatic “manifesto,” and mailing bombs to his imagined enemies. (Memorably parodied by Will Ferrell on SNL.)

It was a pretty easy trope to spread.

The reality was actually quite different, right down to the nature of his cabin, the meticulousness of his methods, and the cogency of his writing. But as recent events ought to have demonstrated (beginning, say, in July 2015), reality is never as important as perception.

The fact was, the powers that be had a vested interest not just in prosecuting Kaczynski, but in discrediting and ridiculing him. The most important thing was not to punish the man, but to make sure that no one took him seriously. Kaczynski himself understood this very well.

I read the so-called manifesto several times for a project I worked on some years ago with the director Mark Romanek, a longtime student of the story. It is anything but the raving nonsense that it has been painted as. While I certainly don’t agree with all of it, or even most of it, Kaczynski undeniably makes a well-articulated, thought-provoking case for the negative effects of industrialization and technology, one that is worthy of serious consideration.

Accordingly, he represented a real threat to the status quo and Them That Has. True, he wasn’t likely to lead a revolution, but it was dangerous to let anyone plant doubt in the public mind about the wisdom and beneficence of the current system. (Kind of like the way ASCAP went after the Girl Scouts to send a message that nobody better cross them.)

To that end, it was essential that Ted Kaczynski be seen as a “nut”—a clearly insane person whose feverish ramblings were not worthy of dignifying with attention or scholarship. And indeed, this is the image of the “Unabomber” (so acronymed by the FBI for his targeting of universities and airlines) that most people have today. The last thing the ruling class wanted was for anyone to think critically about whether or not anything Ted Kaczynski said or wrote made sense.

In one telling side story, there was at least one smartass website that snidely offered selections from the manifesto cheek by jowl with excepts from Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, the predecessor to An Inconvenient Truth, and dared readers to guess which was which. The idea, of course, was to suggest that Gore was a Kaczynski-like cuckoo. (“Climate change? Don’t make me laugh!”) In reality, the exercise proves precisely the opposite: that Ted Kaczynski, despite the best efforts to beclown him, actually had a lot of valuable things to say…..things the prevailing power structure REALLY does not want you to think about.

(Interestingly, Kaczynski shares with conservatives a scorching disdain for the left-of-center liberalism prevalent at the places he was educated and worked, like Harvard and Berkeley. But liberals get off easy. By contrast, in the manifesto he barely wastes any time at all on conservatism, which he dismisses as so intellectually bankrupt and beneath contempt that it doesn’t even merit discussion. Ouch.)

I’m not saying the manifesto was “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine.  (“Some men say that I’m intense or I’m insane.”) Ted frequently goes off on tears and tangents driven by his own unique idiosyncracies, and some of it is, I’m told, reductive of more accomplished anarcho-primitivist academics. (Everyone’s a critic.) But much of it is a very savvy, on-point critique of the problems engendered by the Industrial Revolution and its legacy and is a persuasive read… least right up to the point where he writes, “And that’s why I had to kill people.”

But Ted Kaczynski is far from the first would-be revolutionary to come to that conclusion.


After being captured, Ted’s greatest fear was being portrayed as a mere lunatic. To that end, against the advice of his lawyers, he refused to pursue an insanity defense. Those lawyers secretly mounted one anyway, without informing him. When Kaczynski learned of this he tried to fire them, but was prevented by the presiding judge. Overwrought, he attempted suicide. (A poor choice, as it lent credence —at least to the general public—to the very diagnosis of mental illness that he so opposed.)

Think about that for a moment. Kaczynski’s attorneys were attempting to portray him as a delusional paranoid who imagined that people were scheming behind his back. Meanwhile, they were scheming behind his back.

Kafka couldn’t have written it any better.

From Kafka back to Shakespeare, David Kaczynski’s agony continued. He had agreed to turn in his brother on the condition that the federal authorities wouldn’t seek the death penalty. The Justice Department agreed, then reneged once Ted was in custody. After David expressed his outrage, the DOJ eventually settled for life in prison in a plea bargain, sparing his brother the insanity defense he abhorred.

So was Ted Kaczynski mentally ill or not?

Mental illness is not a yes-or-no, one-size-fits-all proposition; there are of course degrees and infinite variations. The very terms themselves are subject to unresolvable debate. For our purposes it doesn’t really matter. It is enough to say that for whatever reason, as evidenced by his journals, his behavior, his personal history, and the expert assessment of various doctors, Ted Kaczynski suffered at least to some degree from mental illness as it is commonly understood. It’s simply incorrect to say that he was completely rational. But neither is it correct to dismiss him—as some were eager to do—as a raving madman living in a world of delusions who did not understand the consequences of his actions.

Very much the contrary.


 As we all know, “insanity” is a legal concept, not a medical one. As a defense in horrific crimes like a mass shooting or serial killing it has become almost a tautology: the sheer terribleness of the crime is itself held up as evidence that only a madman could have committed it. Mental illness has come to be routinely assumed in crimes of that magnitude, even if it doesn’t result in a ruling of incompetence to stand trial or acquittal by reason of insanity.

But Ted Kaczynski mailing pipe bombs to people he believed represented destructive forces in Western society does not make him insane. You can argue that it was immoral, or not an advisable way to earn credibility, or to bring about the desired political change. But the mere use of violence can’t be held up as evidence of madness.

The use of force to achieve a political end is far from rare, or the province only of the deranged. Many of the same people who were outraged by Ted Kaczynski’s acts gladly supported the atomic bombing of Japan, the Vietnam war, and the invasion of Iraq. The hypocrisy of the state in condemning political violence even as it carries out similar—and often far worse—acts of its own, claiming the sole authority to do so, is self-evident. But that is a debate about the nature of governance, and the source of political authority, and of agency and dissent. For that very reason, non-state actors like guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists lay claim to those same tactics, arguing that the monopoly on force held by an oppressive or tyrannical state leaves them no other recourse. Which is precisely the argument—agree with it or not—that Professor Theodore J. Kaczynski, PhD made.

Whatever his psychological demons, Kaczynski—in his goals, his reasoning, his methods, his communications with the press, indeed in everything he did—had far more in common with political terrorists like the Weathermen or the IRA than he did with garden variety serial killers on the order of a Dahmer, a Zodiac, or a Son of Sam.

The proof is partially in his success: his tradecraft and operational security was so good that he eluded US law enforcement for decades, prompting the longest and costliest manhunt in FBI history, and even then was caught only because of his brother.

To my knowledge no one has ever made a serious claim that the Weather Underground were just a bunch of mentally ill people. Even those who vehemently disagreed with their politics and/or their methods concede that they were a political organization—albeit an outlaw one—driven by concrete policy goals, not delusion and fantasy. (Except perhaps in their belief that they could triumph. Not to belittle them: just acknowledging the standard conservative critique.)

Clearly recognizing this kinship—though also as a means of camouflage—Kaczynski created the persona of a mythical insurgent group called “Freedom Club” in whose name he penned the manifesto. (Later, in the Florence supermax prison, he also reportedly befriended two other high profile terrorist inmates, the Al Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef, who was part of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Timothy McVeigh, one of the Oklahoma City bombers, who was later executed.)

To be clear: I am not defending Kaczynski’s use of violence. He is a murderer. I am merely saying that, whatever his mental health issues and to whatever extent they influenced his thinking, in embracing a military strategy he was engaged in a very traditional political act, not mere nihilism or a manifestation of derangement.

So we are left with the challenging conclusion that Kaczynski is a complex example of a killer who at once displays some hallmarks of a psychopath but also some of a rational—albeit violent—political terrorist. What that ought to tell us is that “mental illness” does not in and of itself preclude other factors and motivations. Indeed, the two often go hand in hand.


History is lousy with demented kings, inbred monarchs, and power-mad despots whose atrocities live in infamy, from Caligula to George III to Pol Pot to idi Amin.

Closer to home, it’s hard to argue that the paranoid, erratic Richard Nixon was in good mental health. The same can be said of Hitler’s irrational obsession with Jewry, which—genocidal and unfounded as it was—nevertheless appears to have been no act. Per the aforementioned tautology, Hitler’s willingness to order the industrialized massacre of 12 million innocent civilians also speaks to a certain, uh, no-so-healthiness.

By these metrics, the Unabomber was a piker. Ted Kaczynski was arguably no crazier than Nixon, and undeniably a much less prolific killer.

But we rarely speak of these men or their actions in terms of mental illness. We talk of them as rational actors, their psychological wellness or lack thereof notwithstanding, even though they committed the kinds of acts that rightly belong in the realm of psychopathy.

For that matter, there is plenty of evidence—and plenty of discussion, both among the general public and mental health professionals—that Trump himself is mentally ill. The Goldwater Rule notwithstanding, more than a few experts have suggested he is, at the very least, a malignant narcissist and clinically paranoid, as well as demonstrating signs of early onset dementia (the slurred speech, the goldfish-level attention span, the rambling and nonsensical speech).

None of which excuses his crimes or makes the damage he’s done any more palatable, any more than they excuse Kaczynski’s.

With his characteristic instinct for saying and doing the very worst possible thing in every single situation, Trump’s first reaction to the Tree of Life massacre was to suggest that synagogues ought to be more like armed camps. As it happens, synagogues in Britain, Germany, and France (to name just a few) are in fact often heavily protected by armed guards. That sight is a sad one, but understandable in light of the dark shadow of European history. But you know what else those countries have that helps protect Jews—and others—from mass murderers? A citizenry that is not armed with AR-15s and a head of state that doesn’t make a practice of whipping his thuggish followers into a racist frenzy.

Regrettable though it is, the idea of hardening targets is not the offensive part. The offensive part is that that was Trump’s first reaction: not to express sympathy, or even pay the usual lip service to grief and unity, but to blame the victims for not protecting themselves better. It’s a vomit-inducing response, but not a surprising one.

Speaking of which, the stubborn insistence that mental illness excludes any other contributor to violence is similar to an argument often raised in the debate over mass shootings themselves.

Every time there is a gun-related mass murder in the United States (which appear to be regularly scheduled events), pro-gun advocates cite mental illness as the real problem, not the ready availability of battlefield weaponry intended for military combat. It goes without saying that this is a disingenuous argument deployed chiefly as an excuse for opposing even the most basic and common sense regulations on firearms. Tellingly, the GOP—a group that overlaps heavily with pro-gun activists in the Venn diagram of American culture—has taken no action on mental health either, and indeed has legislated for easier access to firearms for the mentally ill.

Of course, there is no reason that we can’t address both mental health issues and gun control by way of stopping the killing. The willful ignorance of that possibility by the NRA and GOP speaks to the bad faith of their argument. I’m not expecting anything different in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre.

To last week’s demonic trilogy of pipebombs, Pittsburgh, and Jeffersontown, one could also add the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime, whose leaders clearly had been emboldened by their coziness with Trump, his autocrat-friendly mentality, his business relations with Riyadh, and his open disregard for the rule of law. (Not that the House of Saud needs much encouragement to behave this way.) Yet as far as I know, no one has inquired about the mental health of the Saudi assassins in what was plainly an act of purely venal statecraft at its most brazen and brutal.


As with the Unabomber, the current administration will have a vested interest in convincing us that Cesar Sayoc is—to use the technical term—just a kook. Same with Bowers, same with Gregory Bush.

They all may be. Do I look like a psychiatrist?

I’m certainly not qualified to take a stance on the mental competence of any of these men. But we ought to be suspicious of the impulse to dismiss them as “mere” crackpots, and of the dishonest partisan motive behind that impulse.

This is not a binary choice. Even if they are crackpots that does not remove the possibility that their mental illness was set off—and supercharged—by toxic partisan ideology, or vice versa if you prefer. And it certainly does not exculpate our fake president or the party he leads of any shred of responsibility for what these men have done. (And not for nothing, but it merits mention that they are all middle-aged white men, or at least whitish in the case of the partially Native American Mr. Sayoc. Strangely, Trump hasn’t subjected him to the same racist ridicule as Elizabeth Warren.)

Indeed, the presumptive mental illness of these killers made them even more, not less, susceptible to inflammatory rhetoric that would encourage their psychopathic impulses.

I already hear the counter-argument, that no public figure can be held accountable for how a deranged individual misinterprets or distorts his or her words. Tru(ish), but it’s a question of how much—or little—misinterpretation is involved.

Do we blame the Beatles for Charles Manson? No. But I might, if instead of ”Helter skelter/I’m coming down fast,” the lyrics had said, “Go up in the hills and find a pregnant actress to massacre.”

Even given the unpredictability of the mentally ill, is it helpful for the President of the United States to engage in the kind of hatemongering that he does? As I wrote last week, Trump’s irresponsible, unprecedented demonization of his foes and his active encouragement of a climate of violence cannot plausibly be dismissed when considering the murders and attempted murders we have just witnessed.

From jump, Trump’s defenders have mounted the predictable campaign to portray Sayoc, Bower, Bush et al as lunatics whose actions were self-evidently batshit, and couldn’t possibly be traced back to any encouragement by a demagogic president, let alone anticipated or prevented. Who else but a madman would mail pipe bombs to more than a dozen prominent Trump opponents, or open fire in a synagogue, or kill a pair of innocent people in a supermarket? (Not that the GOP has really even deigned to address the Jeffersontown killings.) As I mentioned earlier, that is the standard misdirection in many an insanity plea.

But I would be very leery of too readily accepting the presumption that is being  presented to us as a fait accompli: that these men are “obviously” mentally ill, and therefore the hateful, wildly irresponsible rhetoric of Donald Trump—and the scorched earth strategy of the Republican Party itself, going back at least to the early 1990s—bears no blame.

Crazy is as crazy does.



3 thoughts on “The Politics of Insanity

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