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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.
On the most basic level of freedom is what James Madison termed the freedom of our conscience, or our ability to make decisions based on our own needs and wants rather than responding to coercion by an external force. Freedom of speech or press is a step above our free conscience, because it is on this level where we allow debate to take place so that we may see our full range of options.
For example, an individual who has freedom of conscience will have the ability to think that he wants bread. He can then exercise his freedom of rhetoric and press to gain information on where to find the best bread. Without freedom of conscience, however, he could never have known that he wanted bread in the first place.
By threatening human lives and by putting the Times and the Post in a position where they are forced to choose between publishing a document and indirectly harming human life, the Unabomber has tried to coerce the judgment of editors at the papers. This sort of coercion--even if it comes at the cost of life--cannot be succumbed to because at the loss of our freedoms, we all begin to lose the value of our lives.
The danger of future threats and future coercion exacerbates the risk posed to our freedom. Heeding threats like the Unabomber's puts the media and free expression at risk: it limits expression only to those who have the coercive means to command the media's voice.
So while at first glance, the newspapers' decision not to publish the document seems inhumane, it is quite the opposite. The papers have not put the sanctity of their pages over human life, rather, they have understood that free speech cannot be sustained under coercion.
Alexis de Toqueville could have not foreseen a situation like the Unabomber's, but his understanding of the powers of the press in Democracy in America Seems especially relevant. Says de Toqueville: "The power of the press puts each man in reach of a very pow-
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