April 7, 2006
Yesterday, the American Constitution Society at Colorado Law hosted a lunch discussion on death penalty with David Kaczynski, an activist against the death penalty and also the brother of Ted Kaczynski. Here is an excerpt of his story, which can also be found at http://www.nyadp.org/main/david.html."I never thought it would happen to my family." I often hear this remark when I speak with family members of murder victims. But it applies equally to me and to other family members of serious offenders. The shock wave from a violent act spreads out in all directions. It isn't possible to be prepared in advance. You may try to imagine how you would feel, but imagination never comes close to the crushing reality.In October 1995, after my wife Linda broached her suspicions concerning my brother Ted, I made a trip to the public library and read everything I could about the Unabomber's 17-year bombing spree. It relieved me that none of the victims' names were known to me, for it made it appear less likely that my brother Ted would have targeted them. I focused at the time on my worry about Ted, yet it wasn't possible to read about the bombings - the unsuspecting victims, the horrified and grieving families - and not feel a sudden twinge of pity. I wondered what it must feel like to be "struck by lightning," to feel one's whole universe shift and teeter as a result of some seemingly random violence. Unfortunately for me, I was soon to find out. As I combed through the Unabomber's "manifesto" published in the Washington Post, it seemed increasingly likely that my brother could have written it. It was nightmarish to consider that my brother's mental illness and distorted thinking could have affected him so terribly. Simultaneously, Linda and I faced another kind of nightmare: what should we do? Say nothing and run the risk that my brother might attack others? Or alert the FBI knowing that the Unabomber would likely face execution?In the end, Linda and I went to the authorities. We shared our suspicions with the FBI agents and helped them investigate and ultimately arrest my brother. Ironically, a 17-year manhunt (the most expensive criminal investigation in US history) was powerless to catch the Unabomber - or not until an anguished family came forward, willing to turn over a loved one because it recognized its responsibility to protect others.The Kaczynski family's partnership with the Justice Department ended on the day of Ted's arrest. Until then, we had worked closely with law enforcement to save lives. After my brother's arrest, however, I watched in dismay and horror as the Justice Department quickly refocused its resources on the goal of taking a human life: my brother's. It didn't seem to concern prosecutors that my brother was mentally ill with schizophrenia, or that executing him would discourage other families from following our example in the future.Since my brother's trial, and especially since becoming executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, I've tried to point out some lessons that can be learned from the Kaczynski case. There are many things wrong with the death penalty, as evidenced by the alarming number of wrongful convictions, the thinly concealed racial and class bias, the fact that we regularly execute juvenile offenders and people with serious mental illnesses. To most thinking people, these reasons are sufficient to reject a system for imposing ultimate punishment that operates with limited rationality and fairness. But in my view (an uncomfortably close and personal view) problems in the application of capital punishment are traceable to a deeper, underlying problem. It is a problem that appears whenever we attempt to excuse or justify violence. The justice system focuses on the crime with little attention given to the offender as a human being. Nevertheless, by subtle or overt inferences, the justice system equates the condemned person with his or her criminal conduct. It's the crime that we deplore, yet it's the human being whom we put to death (as if one could be substituted for the other). Do we undo the crime by killing the criminal? Of course not. Family members of offenders are acutely aware of this confusion. When my mother and I provided background information on Ted to the authorities, we said, "We'll do everything in our power to help you catch the Unabomber, but please understand that this is our loved one: a disturbed person, not a monster." The agents, in turn, acknowledged that Ted was seriously mentally ill. But when it came to seeking the death penalty, the Justice Department did an about-face and hired a psychiatrist who was much criticized for his unorthodox views and prosecutorial bias. His job wasn't to discover the humanity in my brother, but instead to hide my brother's humanity so that the jury wouldn't be tempted to empathize.The death penalty thrives on a polarized vision of human society. It's good against bad, us vs. them. But what happens if one of them is actually one of us? Usually, defendants targeted for death belong to some marginalized group - people of color, people of lower economic status, gays and people "accused" of being gay - all conveniently described as one of them. But in reality they're members of the human family, members of our community, usually members of a family group. Just as the death penalty misdirects hatred for the crime at the offender's humanity, it also inflicts injury on the offender's family and damages core values of responsibility and compassion - values indispensable to the community's health. By seeking my brother's execution, thereby turning us into its adversary, the Justice Department sent a terribly mixed message. By giving way to anger and vengeance, it validated the emotions that often lead to violence while dismissing the humane values which are so desperately needed to prevent it.In the end, my brother's life was spared, not because the Justice Department recognized its error, but because he had great lawyers (the kind of lawyers that few capital defendants ever see). He's now serving a life sentence in a federal prison. It's an outcome we, his family, can live with. For those affected on both sides, my brother's violence has changed all our lives forever. In different ways, we struggle to survive with the better part of our humanity intact. Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? The answer is yes. I believe that we probably saved lives. I trust the values and ethics that moved us to do what we did. I know that it would be a mistake to use others' failures as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. The truth is a very powerful thing. I believe there's no possibility of overcoming evil with evil, falsehood with silence, violence with indifference. If we want to change the world for the better, we must put ourselves on the line.