It was MIT’s Commencement Day Friday May 24, a bit of a surreal event for a campus that’s largely been evacuated due the COVID-19 pandemic. By all accounts, this virtual event was a tour de force, with technical gimmicks and congratulations sent from space. But it was also held in the shadow of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the ensuing protests. MIT President Rafael Reif felt obliged to note the dissonance in a community letter, one that MIT felt so important that a public relations flack forwarded it to a Cambridge neighborhood mailing list.
Reif noted that the pain of Loyd’s murder was felt intensely by African American members of the MIT community, and that the tension with China was provoking harassment of other community members. He said that one of MIT’s strengths was its ability to face hard facts. Let’s take him at his word.
MIT’s commencement speaker was retired Admiral William McRaven. McRaven has been in the press over the last couple of years for his unremarkable observation that President Trump is a danger to the nation. McRaven gets plaudits for this and has become one of those odious figures who are “resistance” heroes. McRaven had a long and storied military career. He literally wrote the book that’s the basis of the organization of the military’s special forces and rose to command them. When he retired, he was the longest serving Navy Seal. He’s credited with organizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But it’s also uncontested that McRaven is responsible for the deaths of more innocent civilians than the Minneapolis Police Chief.
Consider the February 12, 2010 raid on Khataba, Afghanistan. On that day, US Army Rangers killed five civilians, including two pregnant women and a teenage girl. While US involvement was initially denied, in the end, McRaven traveled to Khataba to apologize and offer the traditional condolence offering of a sheep. No soldier ever faced disciplinary action because, it was said, they had followed the rules of engagement.
Let’s face this hard fact. For MIT, some deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of armed agents of the state are worth somber reflection, others result in you being celebrated as a commencement speaker. Some MIT community members deserve sympathy for their special pain. Others – and there are a couple of Afghani MIT students – aren’t worth a mention.
This has been a banner year for MIT’s relationships with terrible people. Jeffrey Epstein’s financial donations to MIT came to light and Reif’s involvement has yet to be explained to the satisfaction of some. There was the conference marking the opening of terrible person Steven Schwarzman’s College of Computing. Not content to leave it at having a school named after a hedge fund slumlord, MIT graced that ceremony with terrible person and war criminal Henry Kissinger to speak about, of all things, artificial intelligence. Also in attendance was awful person Thomas Friedman whose fundamental mediocrity means that he hasn’t met the bar for being deemed awful.
Let’s be fair to Rafael Reif. He didn’t invent MIT’s close relationship with the military. He didn’t move all military research out to Lincoln Lab in Lexington on the theory that out of sight is out of mind. He likely thought McRaven a brilliant choice. Chancellor of the University of Texas for three years, he checks the academic box. An enemy of Trump, he checked the politics box. And when he wrote that letter mourning George Floyd, it likely never occurred to him that his commencement speaker, who he had lauded as a man of integrity, might have his own civilian deaths to account for. They were, after all, half a world away, and lost in the blur of the endless wars in which we find our country locked. In that, he likely joins most Americans. And that’s the hardest fact of all.