There is no doubt that the deadly mayhem endured by the citizens of Austin, Texas, at the hands of a mysterious bomber this month was horrendous. But in the annals of crime, 23-year-old suspect Mark Anthony Conditt (aka the “Austin Bomber”) will go down as an amateur.
It’s sad to say that bombings are not that unusual. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports that there were 439 of them in 2016, set in motion by jilted lovers, stalkers or relatives seeking revenge or an inheritance. Since 1990, dozens have been wounded or killed by a package bomb.
Almost the minute Austin police announced they had a serial bomber on the loose, many media pundits searched their memories and started comparing Conditt to the Unabomber, whose legal name was Ted Kaczynski. Umm, excuse me. In 1996, I covered Kaczynski’s case when he was finally arrested after masterminding a 17-year campaign of terror against university professors, computer stores and a commercial airline. Conditt was no Kaczynski.
The latter was a brilliant student of math and physics who wrote his dissertation about a complex form of geometry. Somewhere along the line, Kaczynski’s mind took a detour. He dropped out of society, lived alone in a tiny shack in Montana with no electricity or plumbing, and fostered a seething hated for what he saw as the evil of technological advancements and real estate development. Convinced he could stop the wickedness, Kaczynski carefully crafted homemade bombs and sent them to those he saw as the world’s enemies. His delusions resulted in three deaths and 23 wounded.
Conditt’s terror spree lasted less than three weeks. His deadly deeds (two were killed, and four were injured) should never be compared to Kaczynski’s carefully plotted out, long-term plan. Nor should the young Conditt be compared to other notorious American bombers.
Eric Rudolph, also known as the “Olympic Park Bomber,” had a specific agenda, as mentally tortured as it was. He was driven by his fervent Christian faith and an anti-government, anti-abortion, anti-gay ideology. Between 1996 and 1998, Rudolph staged a series of bombings across the South. He caused two deaths and more than 100 injuries. Even though he was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for five years, Rudolph was able to elude capture by disappearing into the Appalachian wilderness and living off the land. He was finally arrested in 2003 in North Carolina, while foraging for food in a grocery store dumpster.
Then there was George Metesky, the “Mad Bomber,” who planted dozens of bombs across New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s. He operated undiscovered for 16 years, planting his bombs in public places such as the subway, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, theaters, libraries and phone booths. Metesky, it turned out, was angry with his former employer, Consolidated Edison utility company. He was finally stopped after he detailed his on-the-job injury in letters to newspapers, which helped police zero in on him. He was arrested in 1957. None of his 33 bombs resulted in any deaths, but 15 people were injured. Metesky was sent to a mental institution, but in 1973, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court allowed his release.
So, back to the Austin Bomber. At this writing, a massive investigation continues, and we know little about what motivated Conditt. He can’t be asked, of course, because when Austin police tracked him to a hotel north of Austin and followed him as he drove away in his car, Conditt pulled to the side of the road and detonated one of his bombs. The two SWAT officers trailing him surely watched in horror as he died.
Among the only pertinent facts we know: Conditt had no police or military record. He was home-schooled, a college dropout and unemployed. He bought the materials for his bombs at a Home Depot and online. His fatal mistake was mailing two packages containing bombs at a FedEx store north of San Antonio and using the pseudonym “Kelly Killmore.” Witnesses remembered Conditt outfitted in a strange blond wig, and gloves and surveillance video helped police identify him.
Conditt’s social media musings reveal he was in favor of the death penalty and against same-sex marriage, and he wanted the sex offender registry to be eliminated. Does all that add up to an ideology that would signal a rage-filled, murderous personality in the making? I don’t think so. But it seems obvious by this young man’s actions that somewhere along the line, his grasp on reality left him.
That leaves the rest of us in the same spot we find ourselves after a mass shooting. A young man’s mind begins a descent into mental illness, and he takes it out on the innocent. Shootings like bombings are not rare events.
Once again, I’m left with the feeling that it isn’t the means by which the mayhem was carried out — bombs or guns, knives or a baseball bat — but rather the person holding the weapon.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.