Fantastic essay in the latest issue of Harper’s. It turns out that author William T. Vollmann was suspected of being the Unabomber. While Vollmann — who is a brilliant writer of strange and surprising books — is an unusual person with a lot of weird hangups, it is just completely farfetched to think of him as a plausible terrorist.
This is a part of the issue I mentioned in a recent post on the NSA programs: the chilling effect the security state has on strangeness. On the unusual. If you can no longer be strange, surely liberalism has lost its way?
Another issue raised by the Vollmann article and the recent craziness over the Snowden leaks, in which Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian watched his technicians destroying hard drives in a basement of The Guardian in order to destroy files that the GCHQ knew were stored on other drives in other countries. Or the complete stupidity of detaining David Miranda. That isssue is this: sometimes, the institutions given massive powers over the civilian population will be incompetent or stupid. We also need to recognize that there’s a serious risk of these institutions becoming insular and separate from reality checks outside of themselves simply because they need to keep everything in-house as much as they possibly can. Indeed, that’s their primary function.
The Harper’s essay is subscription only (but well worth getting the print version to read), but the Washington Post has a summary of the piece:
“Reading one’s FBI file is rarely pleasant,” Vollmann writes. He discovered that someone — Vollmann gives him the codename “Ratfink” — turned him in to the authorities as a possible Unabomber suspect because of the content of his fiction. 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.”
What more evidence do we need!?
It’s hard to decide if we should be more concerned about what he describes as the agency’s nefariousness or its stupidity. Vollmann notes that the FBI couldn’t determine his Social Security number because it spelled his name wrong. His file incorrectly claims that he owns a flamethrower. (“I would love to own a flamethrower,” he writes.) It erroneously records him traveling to Beirut. In 1995, he was labeled “ARMED AND DANGEROUS.”