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Monday, April 03, 2006

The Terror of the Unabomber

Ten years ago today federal agents went to a remote cabin outside Lincoln, Montana to arrest one Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.

Just a couple of months before I started graduate school at Berkeley in 1985, one of the students in that department, John Hauser, picked up a package in the computer science lab that detonated and cost him some fingers and his vision. We all had heavy warnings about opening packages during orientation, what a way to start graduate school.

I didn't think much about the Unabomber again until 1993 when Yale University CS professor David Gelernter was injured when a package exploded in his hands. At this point the FBI sent major alerts to all of the CS departments including Chicago and started interviewing faculty about former students. The Unabomber became the main topic of discussion and many of us became very careful about opening any package until his capture in April 1996.

Many students today have never heard of Kaczynski or the Unabomber as he safely spends the rest of his life behind bars. But this mathematician turned bomber made us quite scared and paranoid back in the mid-90's.


  1. There are still signs up in the Cory Hall elevators at Berkeley warning about suspicious packages.

  2. I think that those signs were put after the 2001 anthrax scare.

  3. Not 100% certain about the Cory signs, but there are certainly still signs warning about suspicious packages and mentioning several "recent" mailbomb incidents hanging around McLaughlin Hall (Berkeley's engineering administrative building), which have been there since at least 1998. Though I'm pretty sure the signs David mentions in Cory date back to at least the '90s, too.

  4. IIRC, Ted was an assistant professor at Berkeley in the 70s.

  5. It was quite a shock when David Gelernter was specifically targeted and extremely seriously injured by one of Kaczynski's letter bombs. David Gelernter was a member of the CS family, someone whom I had recently heard speak in a panel on parallel computing at a workshop affiliated with STOC 1991, someone whom it was hard to imagine anyone could hate.

    Even if you thought that your theory research was unlikely to make you a target, any of your colleagues might be, which would put you at risk, too. Day-to-day, however, our reactions were more like denial than paranoia; although we did the quick mental check of each fat envelope to make sure that it did not match the unabomber letter properties, at some level we blocked out the thought that we really could be targets, despite evidence to the contrary. It would have been hard to function otherwise.

    P.S. Kaczynski was at Berkeley 1967-9 not the 1970's.

  6. When I was in high school the columbine shootings occured. All of a sudden, the students turned into both the enemy and the victims. At least at my school the security became tighter and the teachers distanced themselves from the students. I imagine that the looming sense of fear was similar to your descriptions here.

  7. ... looming sense of fear ...

    Actually, not at all. We were not worried about an enemy within (a la Columbine) and the denial had us ignoring deep concern about the external danger.

  8. Even then, it was still more likely for a CS professor to get in a car accident, than to get blown up by a package. Be reasonable people.