MAXWELL:  The power of the printed word

7/14/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In the era of the Internet, the World Wide Web and other forms of electronic communication, the printed word still commands enduring power. Seldom has this truth been more powerfully evident than in the unfortunate lives of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh and alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

Theirs truly are instances of life imitating art.

This reality is not lost on scholars. Nor is it lost on the likes of lawyer Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who initiated a letter-writing campaign to dissuade bookstore chains and distributors from stocking William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries.

This novel, penned under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald, has been the bible for white supremacists and various survivalist groups since the late 1970s. It depicts the day of Armageddon between the white race and everyone else _ most prominently blacks and Jews. At this time, called the “Day of the Rope,” tens of thousands of blacks and other minorities are exterminated.

Pierce, a former physics professor and an official of the American Nazi Party, understands the efficacy of the well-spun tale that has at its core a deep anti-government theme. His book is wrapped in virulent language and graphic descriptions, and the important characters are aggrieved Caucasian zealots.

Most scholars and law enforcement officials close to the Oklahoma City case believe The Turner Diaries, a thinly veiled polemic, inspired the actions of McVeigh, the ex-soldier and Green Beret wannabe. Never intended for a mass audience, the narrative mainly attracts readers who are asocial, asexual, loners from troubled families, underachievers with lifelong feelings of inadequacy.

McVeigh is a perfect match, experts say. His army buddies remember him as an avid reader, nightly poring over magazines such as Soldier of Fortune and Gun & Ammo. But The Turner Diaries had the greatest impact. McVeigh mutated into Earl Turner himself, the novel’s doomed protagonist-narrator. Of course, the world now knows that the process of making and detonating bombs, like the one that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, is described in great detail in the racist tract.

The same “outsiderness” that drew a Timothy McVeigh to William Pierce also pulled a Theodore Kaczynski to Joseph Conrad. Kaczynski’s relatives say that he read Conrad’s complete works, especially the novels The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness, at least a dozen times.

Born in the Ukraine in 1857, Conrad was a master of creating brooding atmosphere and portraying alienated, morally bankrupt characters. His themes pit primitive culture against modern civilization with its dehumanizing science and technology, a world that breeds deep resentment and anarchy.

Like Kaczynski, the major character of The Secret Agent, written in 1907, is a professor who walks away from academia to live in isolation. He, too, is a bomb maker who would kill the so-called destroyers of the human spirit. He, like Kaczynski, enshrines the bomb, making it an end in itself. With his bomb, he intends to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, London’s unholy icon of a dangerous scientific age.

Conrad, although writing of the professor 90 years ago, explains the motives of whoever wrote the 35,000-word Unabomber manifesto: “A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive. . . . Madness alone is truly terrifying inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes. . . . The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.”

The reclusive Kaczynski sees the professor and Kurtz, another of Conrad’s protagonists, as soul mates. In Heart of Darkness, a 1902 tale set in the Belgium Congo, Kaczynski finds Kurtz, the anti-hero, exploring the unknown sphere of evil. The enigmatic Kurtz resorts to violence and brutality to maintain his vision of order. Like Kurtz, who brutalizes the native Congolese to control them, Kaczynski allegedly used terror to destabilize university science and the airline industry.

Joseph Conrad, along with his works, was so real to Kaczynski that he used the alias “Konrad” or “Conrad” several times while away from his mountain cabin. In letters to agencies and in the manifesto titled “Industrial Society and its Future,” authorities say that Kaczynski used the initials “FC,” meaning “Freedom Club.” He was the club’s sole member. In The Secret Agent, the insurrectionists use the initials “FP” to mean “Future of the Proletariat.”

Kaczynski, like McVeigh, reads voraciously. Because reading is a private, anti-social act that animates the individual, Kaczynski and McVeigh, both pathetic creatures on the fringes of society, found life-sustaining meaning in the printed word. They, like many other wounded souls, read to live.

A final truth is worth noting: While William Pierce writes to incite America’s survivalist groups, Joseph Conrad, the seafaring philosopher, wrote as an artist, for readers who want to intellectually explore human nature under extreme conditions. Apparently, Kaczynski missed the author’s intent.