An Ethically Resistable Ultimatum

Why the Unabomber's Gigantic Manuscript Should Not Be Printed

Following a 17-year run that has left 23 injured and three dead across the United States, the Unabomber has insisted that he will kill again unless his 37,000-word document--allegedly authored by the terrorist group "FC'--is published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. After consulting with government officials, both papers have rightly balked at the Unabomber's insistence that they print his lengthy manuscript.

Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that publishers should not capitulate to threats, but in this case, opponents say, more than abstract principles are at stake. By not capitulating to the Unabomber's demands, editors seem to be placing the importance of their news pages over the sanctity of human life and, in doing so, they are putting more lives in danger.

Admittedly, the danger presented by not adhering to Unabomber's demands is significant. More men like the timber company executive in Sacramento, Calif., who was killed last April, may lose their lives.

And the precedent for publishing documents at the behest of terrorists also exists. In 1976, the Washington Post published a document by a Croatian nationalist who hijacked a New York airplane with 100 passengers. The Post printed the manuscript in small print on the bottom of the front page and the hijacker surrendered.

But Benjamin C. Bradlee, former editor the Post, told the Boston Globe last Friday that "[the Croat's document] wasn't 37,000 words; it was more like 3.700".


The Unabomber's 37,000-word document would require roughly six to seven full pages of print, and the exposure that the Unabomber would receive from the document would almost certainly be greater than the publicity gained by the Croatian hijacker. In fact, it is precisely this national notoriety that the Unabomber is after.

The Unabomber is undoubtedly trying to turn attention to a document that, merely because of its length, would not likely be published in a major national newspaper. Regardless of its literary or philosophical merit, national news outlets would most likely print only excerpts--as they do for Supreme Court decisions--if they decided to print anything at all.

The Unabomer has said, however, that his offer to cease further bombings is valid only as long as the document is printed in its entirety.

Nonetheless, in the interest of fairness the Unabomber should have a right to express himself freely and have a fair chance of having his manuscript printed in a newspaper.

But if what is published is improper or illegal, the public or the government must also be able to hold the Unabomber accountable. Regardless of what is said in the Unabomber's document, he cannot be held accountable. His identity is unknown and, given knowledge of his past actions, the Unabomer cannot be judged a reliable source.

It would be irresponsible for the newspapers to publish and anonymous document that has been received from a known criminal. The threat posed to human life, as has been said, is an important one, but the danger posed by following the 1976 precedent may be even greater While most people would not commit a capital crime in order to get their statements in print, the rise of anti-government militia groups and the prevalence of world terrorist organizations indicate that similar future threats are at least possible.

Governments generally refuse to bargain with terrorists because the terrorists' word cannot be counted upon. In the Unabomber's case, even if the newspapers print the document, there is no guarantee that the Unabomber will keep to his word and stop killing now, after 17 years.

If the papers were to print the documents, that would in no way guarantee the safety of those who might otherwise be in danger.

The newspapers are simply refusing to lend to the Unabomer's document the credibility and exposure which it would gain by devoting it six or seven full pages in two of the nation's most widely read newspapers. In truth, the newspapers do not have the option of securing the safety of the Unabomber's next potential victim.

The Post and the Times have are victims of the Unabomber's threats too. They are victims because through his threats, the Unabomber prevents the papers from deciding whether to publish the document based on its merit. Instead, the papers must also contend with public pressure and the thought that human lives may be affected by their decision. If the newspapers are to succumb to this pressure, more lives may be at stake but as a whole, our notion of freedom stands to lose much more.