Seeing the Best in the Worst of Us
A Lesson from the Unabomber’s Brother.
I first began to question my assumptions about evildoers when I read an excerpt from a chapter in a book called Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry. This particular chapter was by David Kaczinski, brother of the infamous “Unabomber.” It seems like a long time ago now, and Kaczinski’s atrocities have been overshadowed by more recent threats to our sense of safety. But most adults will still remember how the Unabomber held the nation in anguished suspense as, over a period of nearly 18 years, he terrorized the nation. He sent letter bombs to several universities and airlines, killing three people and wounding 23 others. He was the target of the FBI’s largest manhunt at the time, but in the end it was his own younger brother who tipped the FBI off to Kaczynski.
Like most people, I breathed a sigh of relief when they caught him and then promptly dismissed him as either an incarnation of evil, a nutcase, or both. If I thought of the admonition to “judge not, lest you be judged” at all, I’m sure I unconsciously assumed it did not apply in this case. How can you not judge someone who committed such despicable crimes? The question is more relevant today than ever before, and it's one I have to return to with increasing frequency.
To this day, the most provocative answer I have seen comes from that excerpt from David Kaczinski's writing. As perhaps only a brother could, David tore down my two-dimensional image of his criminal brother as he wrote about his early memories of Ted. He described not only how he looked up to his very intelligent big brother, but how kind Ted was to him. He tells of a time when he was only about 3 and could not reach the handle of the back door to get back in the house. “I would often stand on the back patio—a tiny exile—calling for someone, Mom, Dad, or Ted, to let me in.” Then came the day when 10- or 11- year-old Ted took it upon himself to solve the problem by hammering a spool low on the door so that David had his own little door handle.
As I imagined that young boy, industriously setting out to solve his little brother’s problem – and those of us who have sons can easily think of our own sons at age 10 or 11, when they are so sweet and innocent – I found myself thinking “What do we know of the forces at work to turn a loving big brother into a heartless killer?” But the stopper, the part of the article that really pulled me up short, was something David said near the conclusion. As he talked of recognizing his brother's style of expression in the Unabomber's "Manifesto" that ran in newspapers and making the choice to turn his brother in, he said:
Suddenly, it felt as if my brother and I were central characters in a grandiose tragedy. I began to discern a frightening symmetry in our lives that led me to the terrible dilemma that [wife] Linda and I then faced: Do nothing and run the risk that Ted might kill again, or turn him in and accept the likelihood that he would be executed for his crimes. The alternatives looked too stark to be true, more like literature than life. Suddenly, I felt trapped inside the narrative of my life, my identity forever defined by the fate of being Ted Kaczynski’s brother. I wanted out of that role. … And yet to choose to do nothing was itself a choice. I chose to contact the FBI. It has occurred to me in the years since that Ted and I are like disowned parts of each other. Ted the Unabomber represents the pessimism that I have considered, then rejected. David, the putative “moral hero,” represents, for Ted, the inauthenticity of hope in a world gone fundamentally awry. Ted’s cruelty stigmatizes my good name, but my reputation for goodness comes at his expense. Like all contrived opposites, we reinforce one another.
I went back to that article by David Kaczynski again and again to try to sort out why it touched me so deeply. What I found myself pondering is whether the root of all condemning, negative or dismissive judgment is our own drive to convince ourselves that we are good. I’m not talking here about recognizing evil when we see it, but rather the added emotional overlay of righteousness that we tend to feel in the face of evil or even garden variety bad behavior. Are those we judge simply the foil against which we can feel good and virtuous?
Thomas Carlyle said, “The greatest of all faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.” It reminds me of a story told about Andrew, a five-year-old boy who pulled out his kindergarten class picture to show it to a visiting neighbor. “This is Robert; he hits everyone. This is Stephen. He never listens to the teacher. This is Mark. He chases us and is very noisy." Pointing to his own picture, Andrew commented, "And this is me. I’m just sitting here minding my own business."
And isn’t that one of the most self-satisfied feelings in the world? To just sit and mind our own business while silently passing judgment on the misdeeds and folly of those around us? Do we co-opt the faults of others and the evil in the world to help us feel better about ourselves? In speaking of his brother, David Kaczynski writes, I'll start with the premise that a brother shows you who you are — and also who you are not. He's an image of the self, at one remove; but also a representation of the "other."
As I allowed myself to consider this previously unthinkable possibility, Jesus’ words, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye” took on new meaning. It’s not that we’re asked to think awful acts are acceptable, but rather we're admonished to use our reaction to these offences as an opportunity to see disowned parts of ourselves. Then we are better equipped to counteract the very real evil deeds that we see going on around us. When we are brave enough to see the reasons behind someone else’s misdoings – or even have the generosity of spirit to speculate that they must exist – we understand that we can never really know what brought another person to the point of doing something wrong or even reprehensible.
David Kaczynski tells how he was 7 or 8 when he first approached his mother with the question, “What’s wrong with Teddy?” At first his mother was evasive: “What do you mean, David? There’s nothing wrong with your brother.” When David pointed out that Ted didn’t have any friends, she still insisted that it was just a natural personality difference between the brothers that made one sociable and the other isolated and bookish. But as David pressed, she finally broke down and told him, “When Teddy was a little baby just 9 months old—before he was able to talk or understand us—he had to go to the hospital because of a rash that covered his little body. In those days, hospitals wouldn’t let parents stay with a sick baby, and we were only allowed to visit him every other day for a couple of hours. I remember how your brother screamed in terror when I had to hand him over to the nurse, who took him away to another room. They had to stick lots of needles in Teddy, who was much too young to understand that everything being done to him was for his own good. He was terribly afraid, and he thought Dad and I had abandoned him to cruel strangers. He probably thought we didn’t love him anymore and that we would never come back to bring him home again.” “David, your brother doesn’t remember what happened to him, I’m sure,” Mom continued. “He was much too young. But that hospital experience hurt him deeply, and the hurt never went away completely.”
When we self-righteously condemn without giving any consideration to the undermining forces that can be hidden in another’s experience, we simply reinforce the separation from one another and from our Source that is the root of all that ails the human race. It is the root of every interpersonal conflict. It is the root of every form of selfishness. Separation from Source and one another is the root cause of every act of cruelty and every act of terrorism. It is the root cause of every war.
I can’t emphasize strongly enough that to refrain from self-righteous condemnation is not the same thing as making excuses or turning a blind eye on wrongs that need to be corrected or stopped. David Kaczynski knew he had to stop his brother; he had to turn him in. But his deep love for his brother allowed him also to do the more difficult task of self-examination. “We have to learn as human beings when bad things happen to find the better parts of ourselves and to take away something from those experiences that is ennobling not diminishing," David concludes. Every time we manage to follow this sage advice, we nurture the seeds of greater wholeness within ourselves, deeper connection with all humankind, and progress toward the day when this beleaguered world knows peace.
Adapted from a sermon given several years ago