Jun 1 1996

Exploding ABC’s Unabomber Hoax

Long before Ted Kaczynski’s arrest, we knew exactly how the Unabomber felt about the left: “Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful,” he wrote in his 35,000 word manifesto. “They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality…. The leftist is antagonistic to the to the concept of competition because, deep inside, he feels like a loser.” As columnist Alexander Cockburn wrote in the Nation (8/28/95), the prose was “like Ayn Rand rolled into Rush Limbaugh.”

But immediately after Kaczynski’s arrest, some in the media began trying to tie the Unabomber suspect to the left in general and the environmental movement in particular. One of the first examples of the genre was a New York Times piece (4/4/96) that pointed out that

Mr. Kaczynski’s sharp turn away from society occurred after he spent several years in the 1960s on two college campuses–in Ann Arbor, Michigan and in Berkeley–that were seedbeds of a counterculture that reacted profoundly against not only the war in Vietnam, but against materialism and many of society’s standards as well.

No evidence was presented that Kaczynski was part of that counterculture–later interviews would indicate, in fact, that he was totally disconnected from it (San Francisco Examiner, 4/4/96; Time, 5/15/96)–but evidence wasn’t necessary for the New York Times to implicate ’60s culture, because “few who were surrounded by it came away unaffected.”

A similar attitude towards evidence was on display the next day on ABC World News Tonight (4/5/96), which ran a report attempting to link Kaczynski to the environmental group Earth First!. “Over the years, Earth First! has been best known as a violent group,” ABC‘s Brian Ross narrated over footage of a burly man beating up a much smaller victim. The viewer had no way of knowing that this was no Earth First! member, but a logger attacking an Earth First! protester who had chained himself to a gate.

Through similar sleight-of-hand, ABC attempted to connect Earth First! to Kaczynski. “Authorities believe Kaczynski was at a meeting attended by top Earth First! members,” Ross reported. What he didn’t report was that the meeting, the International Temperate Forest Conference in Missoula, Mont., was also attended by U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service officials, and by representatives of timber companies like Weyerhauser and Louisiana Pacific (Nation, 5/6/96). The group that organized the meeting–not Earth First!, but the Native Forest Network–says they have no record or remembrance of anyone attending who fit Kaczynski’s description.

The ABC report dishonestly implied that the Unabomber relied on Earth First! to select some of his targets. Ross refers to a “hit list published in one radical environmental journal,” then cuts to a soundbite from Leslie Hemstreet of the Earth First! Journal: “Earth First! can’t take responsibility for what the Unabomber has done with some information he might have gotten from our publication.”

But the list didn’t come from the Earth First! Journal–it came from an obscure eco-anarchist ‘zine called Live Wild or Die, which in 1989 reproduced an anti-environmental conference’s official list of sponsors and scrawled “Eco-Fuckers Hit List” across the top. (In 1995, the Unabomber sent a bomb to one of the groups listed, although the individual he targeted was not the one named on the list.)

Several journalists fell for the insinuations contained in ABC‘s report. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas conflated and exaggerated ABC‘s charges in his write-up (Tampa Tribune, 4/12/96): “Kaczynski went to an Earth First! meeting at the University of Montana where a ‘hit list’ of ‘enemies’ of the environment was distributed.”

USA Today‘s Linda Chavez (4/10/96) wrote a similar column which asserted that “the Unabomber may well have taken his inspiration from the writings of Earth First!’s radical fringe.” The Unabomber could hardly have been “inspired” by Earth First!, of course, since his bombing spree started in 1978, while the environmental group was founded in 1980.

Both columnists complained that while many news reports tied the Oklahoma City bombing suspects to the militia movement, media less often drew a connection between the Unabomber and environmentalists like Earth First!. This analogy ignores the enormous differences between the militias–and their sympathizers on the right–and even the most militant environmental groups.

Militia members by the thousands have stockpiled weapons and preached that an armed confrontation with the federal government is likely. One of the main texts of militia extremists, a novel called The Turner Diaries, favorably depicts a fertilizer bomb attack on a federal building and advocates extermination of non-whites. Militia sympathizer G. Gordon Liddy repeatedly counseled listeners to his syndicated talkshow that “head shots” were the best way to kill federal agents (Extra!, 7-8/95).

Try as they might, conservatives can’t turn an irresponsible “Eco-Fuckers Hit List” into a culture that worships violence. And to insinuate that Kaczynski’s alleged presence at an environmental conference makes Earth First! his accomplice is to say that any criticism of corporate misdeeds is irresponsible–since you never know when someone who hears such criticism might turn out to be a mad bomber.