William Vollman Suspected of Being Unabomber, Anthrax Terrorist, Possibly Lingbergh Kidnapper

Author William T. Vollman has an article in Harpers — behind a paywall, unfortunately — about how his review of his FBI file revealed that he was a suspect both in the Unabomber investigation and later in the anthrax-letter investigation, both for mightily thin reasons. NPR had a good interview with him this morning in which he described being detained for hours at the border and interrogated by the FBI, and explained some of the factors that may have led to him being suspected in one investigation after another. Vollman argues powerfully that the people who make him a perpetual suspect, and those who support that status, are fundamentally un-American.

There are infuriating elements of Vollman's story — the rat who fingered him, the FBI's willingness to detain him at the border without rational cause, and the government's insipid suspicion of anything counter-cultural. To me, the story also poses a classic question: is tyranny deliberate and methodical, or is it dumb and bumbling? Vollman's FBI file reveals the sort of drivel that will be familiar to anyone who has read law enforcement reports of investigations:

[An informant] suggests VOLLMANN has a death wish . . . Reportedly, at age 9, VOLLMANN’s younger sister (age 6) drowned in a backyard pond in New Hampshire while he was supposed to be watching over her. Guilt from that situation may have had a profound effect on VOLLMANN.

VOLLMANN’s meticulous nature, as described above, is consistent with manufacture of and presentation on UNABOM devices. Several witnesses have commented that UNABOM packages appeared “seamless” and “too pretty to open.”

By all accounts VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego.

He revels in immersing himself in the seamy underside of life. He reportedly has used drugs (crack cocaine) extensively. He reportedly owns many guns and a flame-thrower.

(“'I would love to own a flamethrower,' Vollmann wryly adds to this last entry.")

When we face a government increasingly willing and able to spy on us, are we facing an Orwellian scenario of calculated tyranny, of a group of ideologues who share an vision of a security state? Or, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, do we face bureaucracy and banality?

And does it make a difference?

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. Renee Marie Jones says

    A really scary thing is the enormous fraction of the population that is willing to accept that these sorts of stupid investigations are nefessary to "keep us safe." We get the government we (collectively) deserve.

  2. R R Clark says

    The weirdest part about all of this is that this profile is clearly the result of poor source handling practices rather than snooping on his e-mail. But even FLE agents are human, and tend to be obsessive. This isn't really a bad thing, unless you're a (semi-)public figure and they have a personal axe to grind.

  3. Chris says

    Well, you went and mentioned flamethrowers, now the only thing to do is go and watch George Carlin's bit on the subject.

    Also, I don't know what you changed on your site, but doing anything on my phone is a pain, since the "You May Also Like" bar covers my entire screen and the best I can do is switch back and forth between portrait and landscape, and that only gives me back half my screen.

  4. says

    Ken: "[A]re we facing an Orwellian scenario of calculated tyranny, of a group of ideologues who share an vision of a security state? Or, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, do we face bureaucracy and banality?"</i?

    Yes.

    We do face a bureaucracy bent on imposing a well-ordered police state. But surely you've had enough experience with bumbling bureaucrats to know they aren't very good at… much of anything. (If any reader lacks such experience, just consider the Post Awful, ATF, EPA… Heck, recall that the NSA's current excuse for thousands of violations per year — in just one of three centers — is that they effed up. A lot. All. The. Time.)

    Count your blessings. Imagine if they were competently imposing their police state.

  5. Jed Sutherland says

    "Heinlein's Razor" has since been defined as variations on 'Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice.'

    I think that tyranny is not methodical, most of the time. Perhaps we hear more about these incidents because there are more unregulated outlets for the information and because at least some of the population don't assume someone is guilty just because the authorities want to speak to them.

    I don't believe that somene working for the NSA believes they will ever be detained by the police who suspect them of being a terrorist. They are the good guys, working for the good of the nation.

    Many movements and trends resemble a pointillist painting in that every little speck of paint, meaningless on its own, adds to a larger whole. There is no overall intent to limit the freedom of citizens, it just works out that way.

  6. Pedant says

    The overall intent is to control. The FBI, the CIA, the NSA (and their UK, Russian, and … equivalents) aren't interested in exactly what we do: they want to control and manipulate what we do. We now possess a sham of freedom and a mere shell of democracy. (We revile Assad and allow Mugabe's re-inauguration! Neither has killed as many as the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

  7. Hoare says

    His file claims that “anti-growth and anti-progress themes persist throughout each VOLLMANN work.” In this case, his accuser was referring to “Fathers and Crows,” a novel “set mostly in Canada in the seventeenth century.” Even more conclusive, the FBI observed ominously that “UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing.”

    who could need more proof?

  8. Ygolonac says

    (Hope I figure out this code correctly here)

    (“'I would love to own a flamethrower,' Vollmann wryly adds to this last entry.")

    And well he should; flamethrowers are wonderful things, and, under Federal law, perfectly legal – if I wasn't at work, I could link the appropriate letter stating that per the BATFE, flamethrowers are not considered Destructive Devices under Title II of the National Firearms Act of 1934, which regulates all kinds of amusing toys.

    Of course, state and local laws, not mention the more anal-retentive Home Owners Associations, may differ.

    Note that these things are rather expensive as well; it *is* possible to cheap out, of course – Super Soakers full of gasoline have been documented – but really, if *your* fleshy bits will be in close proximity to PRESSURISED HIGHLY FLAMMABLE MATERIALS, one might analyse the disparity between "initial hardware outlay" and "health insurance that explicity covers flamethrower accidents".

    And finally, comics/videogames/movies/"men's adventure" novels to the contrary, flamethrowers are exceptionally well designed for a single purpose, and "off label" uses can more reliably and economically pursued via other methods.

    (tl;dr: I want one too, but am too broke.)

  9. En Passant says

    joshuaism wrote Aug 22, 2013 @1:44 pm:

    Brazil FTW!

    Exactly! I just don't see that "deliberate and methodical" and "dumb and bumbling" are mutually exclusive.

    Similarly "calculated tyranny" and "bureaucracy and banality".

    The problem I see is that those who calculate tyranny typically believe that they are doing a noble thing, necessitated by some overwhelming threat to civil life. Tyrants don't perceive themselves as evil, whether they are the architects of the tyranny or the lowest clerk in the bureaucracy.

  10. AlphaCentauri says

    @Jed Sutherland

    Many movements and trends resemble a pointillist painting in that every little speck of paint, meaningless on its own, adds to a larger whole. There is no overall intent to limit the freedom of citizens, it just works out that way.

    This.

    Until we accept that each individual thinks he/she is doing a good thing, violent rhetoric like burning down the entire government will just cause them to dismiss us as nut jobs. You need to understand where they're standing in order to get them to step back far enough to see the entirely of the painting they're part of.

  11. Josh C says

    Dumb and Bumbling. No question.
    At least in aggregate.

    I know a smart man who has a very high-tech dishwasher, which optimizes for energy efficiency by continuously taking tiny sips from the hot water line. He also has a continuous flow water heater, which is optimizes for efficiency waiting for a continuous demand, then turning on (cheaper, and there's no tank to run out halfway through a shower). Combined though, the dishwasher uses more energy (because it never pulls enough water for the more-efficient heater to turn on) and the heater is likely to self-destruct early (because just as it turns on, the dishwasher stops pulling water, so it constantly cycles).

    That's what Leviathan is like. Individual groups optimizing heavily for whatever their mandate is, with no overall sanity.

  12. James Pollock says

    I think LE, well, mostly federal LE, is caught in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" cycle. When faced with a prominent case with few leads, the public demands that they chase down every possible lead, no matter how flimsy. (No, they don't say "chase down every lead, no matter how flimsy"; they rip you two or three new ones if you didn't follow up on a flimsy lead, and it turns out to have been more substantial than it looked, and then they expect you to do the math.)

    Then when they do chase down (and properly document, in triplicate) the flimsiness of the flimsy lead, people complain that they're wasting resources and harassing innocent people.

  13. En Passant says

    James Pollock wrote Aug 22, 2013 @7:09 pm:

    I think LE, well, mostly federal LE, is caught in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" cycle. When faced with a prominent case with few leads, the public demands that they chase down every possible lead, no matter how flimsy.

    How many leads besides Richard Jewell did the FBI chase down between July 27, 1996 and October 1996?

    It wasn't until Eric Rudolph committed more bombings in 1997 that the FBI finally even decided to suspect him, or anybody but Richard Jewell.

    The FBI and DOJ generally, like many other LE agencies have an institutional habit of making a snap decision on who is to be suspected, then never looking anywhere else for anybody else. That institutional habit has caused more than one prosecution of actually innocent people.

    Notice I said "actually innocent". That doesn't mean "not guilty" because there wasn't proof beyond reasonable doubt. That means they didn't do it. Period.

    LE agencies don't have to operate that way. But they do. They do because they can. There is no penalty for prosecuting or even falsely convicting innocents, especially if the innocents are politically unfavored.

    Sometimes there are damage awards against the government. But those are no penalty for the actual perpetrators of the injustice.

    If it hadn't been for the luck of having excellent and aggressive attorneys, the Duke lacrosse case defendants might be in prison right now. The alleged rape never even happened.

    DA Mike Nifong and two police detectives fabricated evidence. The only penalty they suffered was that Nifong was disbarred.

    I don't think any of those cases involved "chase[ing] down every possible lead".

  14. Kirk Parker says

    ygonolac,

    "flamethrowers are wonderful things, and, under Federal law, perfectly legal "

    I wish I could remember the exact name they use (because it's wonderfully descriptive) , but you should have seen the moment our youngest described the game they played (after dark, at a local middle school) where they soak a tennis ball with gasoline, light it, and the play a sort of soccer with it.

    My wife was all, "What ? What??? You did what?????"

    Whereas my reaction was, "How come *we* didn't figure this game out back in my day???"

    Right out of Dave Barry, it was.

  15. Chris F says

    I think LE, well, mostly federal LE, is caught in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" cycle.

    The fact that the FBI is automatically being criticized for not following up more on the Tsarnaev brothers is proof of this. I'm curious how many files the FBI has that were of the same level of concern as theirs and how much money (an investigation) it would take to follow up on all of them.

  16. En Passant says

    Chris F wrote Aug 23, 2013 @6:15 am:

    I'm curious how many files the FBI has that were of the same level of concern as theirs and how much money (an investigation) it would take to follow up on all of them.

    I don't know if William T. Vollman was on their list of "usual suspects"[1] by then or not. But surely he wasn't the only one.

    The problem is not that the FBI doesn't have "files that were of the same level of concern as [Tsarnaev brothers]". The problem is that they likely do have files of "usual suspects" that are "investigated" just as preposterously as Mr. Vollman was. For years.

    FN 1:

    Major Strasser: [picks up the telephone] Hello?

    Rick: Put that phone down!

    Major Strasser: Get me the radio tower.

    Rick: PUT IT DOWN!
    [Strasser draws a gun, he and Rick both fire simultaneously, Strasser falls mortally wounded, shortly afterward, some police arrive on the scene]

    Captain Renault: Major Strasser's been shot.
    [Renault looks at Rick, Rick gives him a look]

    Captain Renault: Round up the usual suspects.

  17. Ygolonac says

    En Passant: the more telling scene is the earlier roundup, where people are being grabbed off the streets, with the implication being that they are the ones known to the police, and thus filling the "suspects" quota based on that alone.

    The same scene is played for comedic intent in the Marx Brothers' A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. (Of course, Rusty and Corbaccio (Harpo and Chico, respectively) are somewhat more of habitual offenders in that case.)

  18. Eli the Bearded says

    "In the smaller, more focused world of the [terrorist accusation] public
    accommodation, the [FBI] have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so
    as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different.That
    compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the
    tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense
    of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates
    this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest
    of the world. In short, I would say to the [FBI], with the utmost respect: it
    is the price of citizenship." — Judge Richard C. Bonsson (with slight edits)

  19. marco73 says

    Ygolonac:
    The usual suspects are those who could not afford to bribe the police to leave them in peace, to continue their nefarious affairs. Or maybe they were just late with this month's bribe.
    You notice that neither Rick nor any of his cafe/casino employees were rounded up.

    And really, all you need to have a large file at the FBI is have someone who doesn't like you contact the FBI with valuable, anti-terrorist information. Or a spiteful ex-spouse.

  20. says

    All tyranny is inherently stupid; it always comes from stupidity, and it always produces stupidity. By a similar token, all tyranny is inherently harmful; it grows from past harms and produces future harms.

    A typical example of calculated tyranny is the Holocaust, our great modern Reign of Terror. It was deliberate, methodical, calculated…and utterly wrongheaded when you consider what the goal of it actually was. Genocide does not improve human genetics. Mutual hatred is a terrible unifying element for any group. The whole effort was worse than useless; its short-term success only highlights its long-term failure. Stupid, and harmful.

    Compare this to examples considered typical of dumb and bumbling tyranny, like the Great Leap Forward and the War on Drugs, and we see that even when tyranny is smart, it's dumb. Its power comes not from intelligence, but from the stubbornness of its subjects.

    It strikes me now that tyranny, by nature, is methodical stupidity. Now that terrifies me.

  21. James Pollock says

    En Passant, thank you for being an exemplar of the truth of my statement. LE will be criticized either way… if they don't follow up on leads (even if they think they've got the guy), they're lazy and incompetent. If they DO keep looking at people, they're harassing obviously innocent people and wasting the taxpayers' money to do it. Note also that the public, having learned everything they know about law enforcement from television, expect the case to be solved in 60 minutes minus time for commercials. Let the case drag on or even remain unsolved (because there's just no evidence)…

    I didn't say they never get things wrong, because they do. They're organizations made up of people and people make mistakes, and bureaucratic organizations of people make it hard to correct mistakes once made. Oregon has a case that illustrates the problem, the "Happy Face" killer, who was caught only because he began a correspondence with a newspaper columnist… after two other people had been convicted of the killings.
    Child protective services has the same problem. If they miss the signs of one child being abused, they're lazy and bureaucratic and can't see obvious signs of trouble. But take one kid into protective custody on allegations that turn out to be unfounded, and they're overzealously breaking up families just because they can. Often, they'll have both complaints levelled at them at the same time.

  22. Dyspeptic Curmudgeon says

    I doubt that Heinlein's Razor applies. More likely Grey's Law:

    "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice."

    And this gives all the signs of being very well advanced!