April 21, 1996 in City

America’s Obsession With Victimhood A Unabomber Target Refuses To Answer Society’s Call For Weakness In The Face Of Terror

John Schwartz The Washington Post
 

“Any morally healthy person would rather bash in his head with a cinder block than choose to call himself a victim,” David Gelernter says.

Few are better qualified to comment on the subject than he. In 1993 Gelernter was almost killed by the terrorist known as the Unabomber. Now, after Theodore Kaczynski’s arrest as a suspect in the case, he’s being terrorized by reporters wanting a sob story. He was recently awakened at 6:30 with a typical call: a television producer “offering me the opportunity” to appear on television to bare his soul.

It’s not his style.

To Gelernter, this obsession with victimization in the popular media is part of a broader problem with our culture. While he is loath to disparage the suffering of others, he believes that “to be a victim is a choice you make” - one you can decline. “Society is rigged to encourage people to assume disgraceful and pathetic spiritual stances… to encourage them to be weak instead of being strong. It seems to me perverse.”

Gelernter has heard from the killer twice. The first time, he received a package containing a pipe bomb. When the Yale computer science professor opened his mail on that day in June 1993, the resulting explosion blew two fingers off his right hand, damaged his hearing and eyesight, and left scars over much of his body.

Nearly two years later, Gelernter heard from the terrorist again - this time in a letter. The professor’s administrative assistant, Chris Hatchell, brought in the opened envelope; the sender’s identity was obvious from the content of the taunting missive.

“If you’d had any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world,” the letter said, “and you wouldn’t have been dumb enough to open an unexpected package from an unknown source.”

Gelernter didn’t read that line, however, or any of the letter. Although some people might not have been able to pass up the opportunity to find out what went on in the mind of the man who had crippled him, Gelernter instantly put it aside and called the FBI to take it away.

“It was instinctive revulsion as much as a policy statement,” Gelernter said. “If I had sat down and pondered it deeply, I would have reached the same conclusion.”

That incident is typical of the way Gelernter has lived his life after the blast: He has steadfastly refused to let the incident or the man who caused it continue to cast a shadow over him. In a series of interviews by telephone and electronic mail last week, Gelernter described his life since the explosion: what has changed, and what changes he has refused to allow.

Although he did “skim” the Unabomber’s manifesto at the FBI’s request, Gelernter said he has not shared in what amounts to a national obsession with getting inside the head of the bomber, whom he refers to as “the guy” or “that person.”

“I have no interest in seeing what this guy has produced,” Gelernter said. “I have always believed that violent criminals have removed themselves from any claim on a person’s time - besides the time necessary to put them behind bars.”

Local FBI agents have “bent over backwards,” Gelernter said, to keep him apprised of the investigation. New Haven FBI agents declined to comment on their communications.

Gelernter traces his abhorrence of intellectualizing violent acts to his adolescence, when he would read news stories of schoolchildren killed in attacks by Palestinian terrorists and then see public figures such as Vanessa Redgrave expressing support for their cause. “Romanticizing or any way dealing with violent criminals is contemptible,” Gelernter said.

He refuses to take part in what he calls America’s “victim culture.” Since the Kaczynski arrest, Gelernter said, he has been deluged with “extraordinarily sleazy messages” - calls, faxes and visits from reporters and television producers pleading with him to share his pain with the nation - “to step forward and take my rightful share of victimhood.”

Gelernter will have none of it.

“Terrorists commit crime to get attention, and to give them attention is to condone the crime and collaborate with the criminal - not directly but implicitly.” He also argues that his case should not be treated as anything special. “In the physical sense, everybody takes his lumps in one way or another. I got injured in a particularly dramatic way, but innocent people are injured in auto accidents by the thousands every day.”

Since the attack, Gelernter said, he has focused on recovering and getting on with his life - and on the positive aspects of his experience.

“The most important thing about the post-bomb period,” he wrote, “was the extraordinary kindness of our various communities - our neighbors, synagogue, the school where our boys go, Yale, friends and even strangers all over the world.”

Closing an e-mail message last week, he typed, “I consider myself a lucky man, any way you look at it.”

MEMO: John Schwartz is a reporter for the Washington Post.

John Schwartz is a reporter for the Washington Post.


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