Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Defending the Unibomber
By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 1998 --  

Last week's developments in the trial of Ted Kaczynski demonstrated just how frightening government can be when it ignores civil liberties in order to coddle its citizens. Despite a persistent demand that he be allowed to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers, Judge Garland Burrell Jr. continued forcing Kaczynski to be represented by a legal team that is steadfast in its insistence that he be branded insane.

Thus far, Burrell's justifications for denying Kaczynski his requests have been technical. Burrell backed these justifications, however, with his stated belief that the defendant's life is more on the line if he does not pursue an insanity defense.1 Joining the effort to force a mental defect strategy on the defendant is Kaczynski's brother, David. He wants to avoid the nearly certain death penalty that would result from non-insanity based tactics.

While it is understandable that David would want to do whatever it takes to save the life of his brother, the actions of Judge Burrell are far more difficult to excuse. By refusing the impassioned demands of the defendant, Burrell's condescension strips Kaczynski of his freedom to defend himself.

Defenders of government paternalism are quick to dismiss the free will of mentally ill defendants. They insist that mental illness often renders defendants incompetent to choose their own defense strategy. This may be true. But who is to judge? Determination of mental competence is inherently so subjective that the opportunities for error are huge. This might be acceptable if the consequences for being wrong weren't so terribly dire. By branding an individual as mentally incompetent, the state strips him of his most important civil liberties.

This is an awesome power. It is a power that is all too easy to abuse, as the Soviet Union demonstrated through decades of confining political prisoners in mental institutions. The parallels to the Soviet experience become quite uncomfortable when you consider the highly political nature of the Unibomber's crimes. Is Kaczynski a paranoid schizophrenic who should be locked up for life and denied the right to his own defense? Or is he a political dissident who was willing to sacrifice lives in order to achieve righteous ends? Kaczynski might argue the latter. His lawyers are far more apt to argue the former. By doing so, however, his advocates place themselves in the disconcerting company of countless lawyers supporting totalitarian systems throughout history.

It is very difficult to sympathize with Kaczynski, given the brutal murders he allegedly committed. Indeed, the brutality of these actions makes it much easier to dismiss the man as a raving lunatic: "How could a sane person commit such heinous acts?" But the reality is altogether more complex. Anyone who has sincerely read the Unibomber's manifesto is keenly aware that they are not the rantings of a lunatic. The paper employed excellent arguments and made seemingly reasonable conclusions. Despite my nearly polar-opposite views on the virtues of technology, I was able to find many serious, thought-provoking issues covered by his thesis.

Let there be no mistake -- the Unibomber is wrong. His ideas are wrong. The terrible crimes he committed were wrong. But he must not be dismissed. Kaczynski has a genius-level intellect and demonstrates full awareness of the consequences of the trial. His journal clearly proclaimed his fear of being labeled insane. The same fear is painfully visible in his eyes as he founders in court, yearning to be able to defend himself on the basis of his conscience.

Kaczynski deserves that chance. More importantly, the sanctity of the American judicial system requires that he be given that chance. To deny the right of an individual to defend himself as he sees fit in a criminal case is completely alien to the concept of a free society. If a man as intelligent and competent as Kaczynski -- sane or not -- can be denied this opportunity, I fear for the future of the country.

1. The Washington Post, January 8, 1997.