In the Kingdom of the Unabomber, Part VI:
“He Probably Never Felt a Thing.”
Background: In 1998, Gary Greenberg, a psychotherapist living in rural Connecticut, began a correspondence with Ted Kaczynski, the murderer known as the Unabomber. He and Kaczynski exchanged dozens of letters, with some of Kaczynski’s as long as 20 pages. In the letters, they discussed the insidious influence of technology, the preservation of wild nature, the dubious claims and conclusions of the psychiatric profession, the appetites and proclivities of the American media, Kaczynski’s life in prison, the choices made by Kaczynski’s family, and the lessons of Russian feudalism.
In a wide-ranging essay, Greenberg discusses the evolution and dissolution of his relationship with Kaczynski, along the way eviscerating the media that courted and then devoured the Unabomber, the judicial system that did everything possible to avoid another O.J. sort of trial, and the psychiatrists who muted Kaczynski’s principles by labeling them as paranoid schizophrenia.
Please note: a) This story is absolutely real; b) The excerpts being presented comprise only a portion of Mr. Greenberg’s article, which in its entirety is 23,000 words or so; c) The order of the excerpts is not necessarily the same as that in the print version.
Part I: Please Forgive My Intrusion Into Your Life
Part II: The Franchiser
Part III: The Mark of Zorro
“He Probably Never Felt a Thing.”
The problem that grabbed my attention went way beyond Kaczynski’s image. The real opportunity here, the one that made the franchise seem valuable to me, was to write about the way all things Unabomber had been fashioned. Kaczynski hadn’t thrown a wrench into the machinery of mass culture so much as he had kicked it into high gear.
Take, for instance, the story of Hugh Scrutton, the man killed by a bomb Kaczynski left in a parking lot in Sacramento in December 1985. Here’s how the Government Sentencing Memorandum describes the victim:
Friends recall Hugh as a man who embraced life, a gentle man with a sense of humor who had traveled around the world, climbed mountains, and studied languages. He cared about politics, was “fair and kind” in business, and was remembered as “straightforward, honest, and sincere.” He left behind his mother, sister, family members, a girlfriend who loved him dearly, and a circle of friends and colleagues who respected and cared for him.
And here’s Kaczynski’s account of the killing, decoded by the Government and presented in the same memorandum.
Experiment 97. Dec. 11, 1985. I planted a bomb disguised to look like a scrap of lumber behind Rentech Computer Store in Sacramento. According to the San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 20, the “operator” (owner? manager?) of the store was killed, "blown to bits, on Dec. 12. Excellent. Humane way to eliminate somebody. He probably never felt a thing. 25,000 reward offered. Rather flattering.
The contrast couldn’t be clearer. One man — chortling to himself in his ramshackle cabin — exults over having obliterated another — an honest, hardworking man who was performing what the sentencing memorandum called a “simple act of courtesy, trying to remove what looked like a potential hazard to others.” It’s effective rhetoric: no one can read this account and not be moved or think that the killer deserves to lose the same rights he stole from the victim.
But here’s an interesting thing, one that tells us that more is at stake here than simple justice: The “act of courtesy” by which the Government said Scrutton was killed seems to be a fiction, one of those tales that gains its truth by some combination of plausibility and repetition, that takes hold because the cultural climate is just right for it. It’s a little piece of mythic filigree that was added to the story slowly and imperceptibly over the 13 years between the murder and Kaczynski’s sentencing.
Scrutton’s violent and untimely end is awful enough, so awful, one might say, that it doesn’t matter if the Good Samaritan story isn’t precisely true. But, by the same token, one might also reasonably wonder why and how the embellishment came about in the first place. At first, the simple horror of the death could be conveyed in a workmanlike account like The Sacramento Bee’s:
A Sacramento businessman was killed Wednesday when a bomb that had been left behind his store blew up in his face, authorities said.
The blast shortly after noon mortally wounded Hugh Campbell Scrutton, 38, owner of RenTech Computer Rentals in the Century Plaza shopping center…
The device exploded just moments after Scrutton left his store through the back door and headed for the parking lot, according to reports. The blast blew Scrutton about 10 feet.
The first person to arrive at the scene said Scrutton cried out, “Oh my God! Help me!”
Scrutton, of Carmichael, was pronounced dead at 12:34 p.m. at University Medical Center. He reportedly took the full force of the blast in his chest. There were no known witnesses.
Investigators placed the time of the blast at 12:04 p.m. They said Scrutton was on his way to the parking lot when, they believe, he spotted an object, which may not have been identifiable as a bomb.
[Sgt. Roger] Dickson said it appeared that Scrutton, who had only keys in one hand and a book in the other, may have leaned over to examine or move the object when it exploded. “The injuries were consistent with that kind of movement.”
Eight days later, the Bee put a little more face on Scrutton.
“Mr. Scrutton was an exemplary citizen with an unblemished character. I am certain that he was not a specific victim of the bomber,” said Lt. Ray Biondi, head of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department homicide bureau. “Anyone who happened by the business could well have been the victim.”
Three months later, Scrutton was still on Sacramento’s mind — now as the victim of an unsolved crime. And, the Bee reported, he was still an exemplar.
“Hugh was the best boss I ever had,” said a RenTech employee, who asked that his name not be printed. “He was an honest, kind person. And that really makes it harder, because it’s such a shame when someone that nice is taken from you.”
So far, the mythmaking is gentle and slow and almost invisible: a good and law-abiding man had gotten blown to pieces in a parking lot. Even unadorned, it shows us that the terrorist had found his pivot: The dead man could have been you or me. By 1994, however, it began to seem that Scrutton’s death was one in a series of bombings carried out by someone Playboy called “The Scariest Criminal in America.” And suddenly, Scrutton had a motive:
It is five minutes before noon on December 11, 1985. Hugh Scrutton, 38 years old and single, opens the back door of his computer rental store in Sacramento and steps out into a bright day, where his death waits just a few feet away in a crumpled paper bag. Sunlight glints off the chrome of cars and pickups parked in the big asphalt lot that opens to the west. A 15-mile-per hour wind blows south off the eastern hip of California’s Coastal Range and rattles the bag. Scrutton steps past it, then turns.
There are two Dumpsters right by the door, he thinks. Why do people do this? Jesus, just drop the damn thing in.
Scrutton bends down and reaches for the bag with his right hand. There is no time to consider what happens next.
It’s hard to understand how a Playboy fact checker could fail to question a reporter’s claim to know Scrutton’s thoughts at the moment of his death. But the flourish of altruism, first spotted here, fits in, certainly better than if Playboy had had Scrutton seized by a need to keep his parking lot clean or a hope that the bag contained cash. Scrutton isn’t quite yet the Good Samaritan, but he is good enough to hate litter. He may be better than you or me. The embellishment was soon an integral part of Scrutton’s story. The month after the Playboy article appeared, Thomas Mosser, a New Jersey advertising executive was killed by a bomb in his home. Mosser’s death was almost immediately identified as another in the series, and Newsday reviewed the earlier victims, including Scrutton.
Hugh Campbell Scrutton walked out the back door of his RenTech computer rental store. He bent down to clear what looked like clutter, about two feet from the door.
Sgt. Dickson’s 1985 speculation has now become a fact, even for the paper that initially reported it as a theory: “Scrutton … bent to pick up what appeared to be a pile of litter,” the Bee reported in November, 1997. He didn’t just trip on or idly kick the bomb. He had a motive, one that, six months later, became part of the United States Government’s official story about Hugh Scrutton.
Robert Graysmith’s true-crime book, Unabomber: A Desire to Kill, gives us this version of the Good Samaritan story:
On December 11, 1985, only two weeks before Christmas, Scrutton got up from his desk and made ready for a lunchtime appointment…. He opened the rear door of his store and looked out upon a windswept parking lot in the strip mall and pulled up his collar. Near a Dumpster he saw a block of wood about four inches high and a foot long. There were sharp nails protruding from the block, a road hazard or, even worse, a real danger to the trash men or the transient who occasionally came by to pick through the Dumpsters. He bent over to move it. It was heavy. Lead weights had been inserted in the lower two inches of the block.
Graysmith’s rhetorical economy here is remarkable, each image used for all it is worth and then some. Bums and trash men in need of the protection of a hardworking businessman, an inhospitable parking lot, a lead-heavy road hazard (not just trash, but dangerous and inconvenient trash), the now-famous wind, and, serendipity for the storyteller, Christmas. Graysmith hardly needs to take up residence in Scrutton’s blasted life to venture this explanation. He just needs to know his audience.
Decorated as a Good Samaritan, the innocent but hapless bystander takes on the glow of decent people’s highest aspirations. It’s not enough to vilify the bomber simply for murdering someone or to appeal to the usual explanations — passion or dementia, revenge or hatred — to account for Scrutton’s death. Because these are political crimes. The Unabomber was a subversive, in the most elemental sense of the word. He wanted to turn things upside down. What kept Industrial Society going, in his view, was a belief in technology that amounted to a dangerous delusion. And he wanted to disabuse the rest of us of our illusion by blowing up whichever you or me kicked or tripped on or tried to steal or safely discard the parking-lot bomb. Not because he was crazy or randomly depraved, but because he believed something that was at least coherent.
And that’s why Scrutton’s story had to be adorned, why he couldn’t be left as the victim of random cruelty. At stake, after all, is this central problem of modern life: that we pursue and sometimes achieve happiness with such blithe disregard for consequence. The filigree tells us just what terrible kind of monster Kaczynski is: the kind that would kill an altruist.
SUGGESTED READSIn the Kingdom of the Unabomber, Part I: Please Forgive My Intrusion Into Your Life
by Gary Greenberg (8/27/1999)
In the Kingdom of the Unabomber, Part III: The Mark of Zorro.
by Gary Greenberg (8/31/1999)
In the Kingdom of the Unabomber, Part XIV: Pimping for Kaczynski
by Gary Greenberg (9/2/1999)
RECENTLYCoffee Shop Algebra
by Allen Rein (3/27/2015)
Open Letters: An Open Letter to the Braxton-Hicks Contractions That Hit a Student in My First Period 10th Grade English Class
by Mr. Dickson (3/27/2015)
List: Things My Love Life and My Writing Career Have in Common
by Samantha Edmonds (3/27/2015)
POPULARAn Honest College Rejection Letter
by Mimi Evans (3/26/2015)
List: What Your Favorite ’80s Band Says About You
by John Peck (7/5/2011)
Reasons You Were Not Promoted That are Totally Unrelated to Gender
by Homa Mojtabai (1/27/2015)