Fourteen years after opening a package bomb sent by the Unabomber, Yale computer science professor David Gelernter ’76 still feels pain every day, and more may soon be coming.
After nine years in prison, Ted Kaczynski has returned to both the headlines and the courtroom as he challenges a government plan to auction off his expansive writings to raise restitution for his victims. But as Kaczynski fights the auction on First Amendment grounds, some of his victims, including Gelernter, have raised concerns about the possibility that Kaczynski’s musings about bombmaking could wind up the focus of a morbid bidding frenzy — and open up old wounds at the same time.
The government wants to raise money for four of Kaczynski’s victims by selling Kaczynski’s writings, diary and drafts of his anti-technology manifesto — more than 40,000 pages in all. Before an auction takes place, the government plans to edit the papers, removing all references to Kaczynski’s victims in an act Kaczynski says would be an unconstitutional violation of his right to free speech. Gelernter also objects to the plan, though for different reasons than the Unabomber’s. In 2005, he filed a letter in the federal court in which he objected to the sale on the grounds that it might turn into a “P.R. bonanza” for Kaczynski. Today, Gelernter said, he is still strongly opposed to the idea of the auction, but he thinks the money it would raise could be put to good use.
“I find the idea of the auction revolting, sickening, profoundly despicable,” Gelernter said. “At the same time, I would love to see [some of the victims] get some restitution … not that any restitution can possibly repair a universe shattered through the criminal villainy of this murderer. But certainly they deserve whatever they can get.”
Gelernter’s prediction of a P.R. bonanza may have proved correct, even though the auction has yet to receive the final green light. Last week, the New York Times published a front-page story on the proposed auction, and the case has returned to the public eye nine years after Kaczynski headed to jail to serve a life sentence and 14 years since the fateful Thursday when Gelernter’s life changed in a moment.
Early in the morning on June 24, 1993, Gelernter settled in his 5th floor office in Arthur K. Watson Hall at the base of Science Hill. Having just returned from a vacation in Washington, D.C., Gelernter found a stack of mail, including a package — a Ph.D. dissertation, he assumed — sitting on his chair.
Ripping open the package, smoke billowed out, and then a flash. Gelernter headed to a nearby bathroom to wash his eye out before discovering a more pressing concern — he was bleeding profusely. Rather than wait for help to arrive, he hobbled down five flights of stairs — “in pain and royally annoyed,” he recalled in a 1997 book on the attack — and headed across Hillhouse Avenue to University Health Services. Had he waited, he likely would have bled to death, doctors told him.
“My first thought was along the lines of: Bombs must be going off all over campus this morning,” Gelernter wrote. “It didn’t occur to me that I could possibly have been singled out as a target. I was not in a murder-prone line of work; I had no personal enemies, on account not of being lovable but of being obscure.”
When he arrived at the clinic, Gelernter had a blood pressure reading of zero. FBI agents later found one of his shoes in his office — where shrapnel sliced through metal filing cabinets — and his bloodied shirt strewn on the staircase. The bomb had severely wounded his abdomen, chest, face and hand, and even today Gelernter does not have the use of his right hand.
Then-University Secretary Sheila Wellington EPH ’68 GRD ’68 was in her office that same morning when she received news of the explosion. Rushing to Watson Hall, Wellington found a gruesome scene — including a block-long trail of blood marking Gelernter’s route, she recalled last week by phone from New York City, where she now teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business.
Wellington, who oversaw media relations and campus security as Secretary, was quickly joined by Yale and New Haven police officials as well as the FBI and Secret Service. Her first instinct was the same as Gelernter’s — that Yale on the whole was under attack.
“It was a very difficult time for the University right after it happened … the news just traveled everywhere,” she said. “There was a widespread concern that it was the University itself that was under siege.”
Gelernter opened his package just two days after a professor at the University of California at San Francisco lost several fingers from a similar bomb. Authorities quickly linked the two bombings and connected them to a spate of 12 others dating back to 1978, most of which targeted scientists and technology-related companies.
Because the FBI was able to quickly deduce that the attack on Gelernter was linked to the other bombings, the University was able to prevent outright panic at Yale, Wellington said. Newly appointed President Richard Levin convened the faculty for an emergency meeting to reassure them of their safety, she said.
Police Department Chief James Perrotti said the bombing spurred the YPD to work with University mail services on educating workers on what to look for when handling mail. The effort decreased fear among University faculty and staff, but the incident was traumatizing in the short-term, Perrotti said.
“Having been here for that and having witnessed how it happened and where it happened and knowing the lasting impact it had on all the victims … I don’t know any other way to describe it other than having a tremendous impact in the University and outside,” he said.
The Road to Recovery
The Unabomber might have had a tremendous impact on the University, but for Gelernter, the bombing was something from which he was able to recover — with a little sleight of hand.
After he lost the use of his right hand in the bombing, Gelernter was not as worried about being able to continue his work with computers — although his development of the Linda programming language and his work in parallel computing had propelled him to prominence — as he was about his art.
“In the period directly after I was hurt, I had the impression that I was never going to be able to paint again,” he said. “When I discovered I could use my left hand the way I once used my right hand … I knew I could never step away from my studio.”
That painting was his immediate concern reflects that fact Gelernter’s life extends far beyond his work in the Computer Science Department. The intersection of art and religion is Gelernter’s natural home, he said, and today, he is a member of the National Council of the Arts. He is also a noted conservative writer and currently serves as a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, having previously worked as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and New York Post.
Even today, Gelernter’s injuries — severe wounds to his abdomen, chest, face and hands — cause him exhaustion and a sort of lingering pain, though nothing acute or disabling, he said. The lasting pain is the primary negative consequence of the Unabomber attack, but the attack also provided Gelernter a new appreciation for the kindness of his colleagues, students and family.
“A crime like this is a hideous, but it also illuminates in a rather moving way the capacity for sympathy and support that exists in the community at large,” he said.
A Lingering Legal Battle
As Gelernter’s pain lingers on, so might Kaczynski’s court battle, legal experts said. Kaczynski charges that the government has no right to take his writings or redact them as planned. His writings contain candid assessments of 16 mail bombings, as well as his victims — 28 wounded and 3 killed — and their families’ suffering.
Robert Post, a Yale Law School professor and expert in First Amendment issues, said Kaczynski’s legal case is far from clear-cut. Beyond Kaczynski’s First Amendment claims, the issue of privacy could come into play, particularly as it pertains to tracts, like his diary, that could expose Kaczynski to public view, Post said.
But the most important question is whether Kaczynski would retain copies of his papers and thus have a way to preserve his thoughts. While the government has a right to seize his property, it has no such right to take his ideas, he said.
“Papers are like property, so if the government has a right to your property, they have a right to your papers. That’s not a First Amendment question,” Post said. “[But] it matters in what sense they take his papers. Are they taking merely the physical paper, or are they taking the ideas? If he retains a Xerox of his papers, then they’re not taking his ideas in any sense.”
Kaczynski’s stronger claim pertains to whether the government can edit his papers, said Ron Collins, a scholar at the nonpartisan First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. In all likelihood, the state cannot do so unless the victims can prove a demonstrable privacy claim — which, at least based on the most recent Appeals Court opinion, has only been alleged but not described beyond the abstract.
“It doesn’t seem to me that they can redact portions deemed objectionable or offensive,” Collins said. “They don’t have a right not to be offended.”
While the legal question may not be settled in court in the near future, life continues as usual for Gelernter, who is presently working on a book, to be published by Doubleday in June, entitled, “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.” He was published as recently as last week in The Weekly Standard, where he wrote about the State of the Union, and this year marks his 25th in the Yale Computer Science department — where he is defined by his work, not by the Unabomber’s attack, his colleagues said.
“People don’t look at David and say, ‘Wow, he’s a victim of the Unabomber,’ ” said department chair Avi Silberschatz. “They say, ‘Wow, he’s a great computer scientist.’ ”