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Put Down Auction Hammer, Uncle Sam

I am as guilty as any other voyeur in America: I strained to acquire a copy of O.J. Simpson's subjunctive confession, "If I Did It." An outraged public reaction led publishers to recall the book before it hit the stands. There is a thriving market in the few pirated copies in circulation.

So the prospect of a Government auction of the Unabomber's papers troubles and titillates me. It troubles one of the victim's, too. "My wife and I are outraged that the court has decided to turn the sale of this criminal's property into a circus -- or (more accurately) into a P.R. bonanza, starring the criminal himself," said David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor, in a letter to a federal judge. Gelertner was injured when a package sent to him by Theodore Kaczynski exploded.

Kaczynski waged a one-man war on modernity from a rural Montana cabin. Dubbed the Unabomber by federal agents, he sent mail bombs to carefully selected targets from 1978 to 1995, killing three people and injuring 28 more. His journals contain assessments of those bombings.

The federal government plans to auction the items with redactions designed to protect the victims. The proceeds of the auction would go to the victims to help pay part of the $15 million in restitution ordered as part of Mr. Kaczynski's life sentence.

It is downright maudlin to see the federal government playing dial for dollars with the Unabomber's artifacts. Not just his journals will be auctioned; the feds propose to place on the block the 250 books found in his cabin, including his copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Book collectors would call this volume an association copy; in other words, a copy associated with a famous, or, in this case, infamous, figure.

I've never read the Unabomber's 35,000 word manifesto, which was published in The Washington Post before he was captured. I don't know whether he can write, or if he has things worth saying. However, I do know that this home-grown terrorist is right up there with Charles Manson as one of the most famous of the past century's criminals. His items would sell well.

Auctioning his material to pay his victims isn't exactly a crime. But it is nonetheless a foolish idea. Better these papers find their way to a museum or library. The University of Michigan's Labadie Collection of materials on anarchism and protest would be a good home for the items.

Mr. Kaczynski is himself raising First Amendment issues about the proposed sale of his material. It is hard to see a viable First Amendment claim in this mess. It would be better for the Government simply to drop the auction idea. Victims have rights, certainly. But making the Government into an agent of hucksterism shouldn't be one of them.

(Also published at http://bibliophile.blogs.com/.)

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