I’m teaching the issue of drone warfare and targeted killing in one of my ethics classes, the fifth or sixth semester in a row I’ve taught this material, via Kenneth Himes’s 2016 book, Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing. It’s been a frustrating, even despair-inducing experience: Of the 90 or so students enrolled, only half attend. Of the 45 of who attend, 40 are utterly indifferent to the material, unmoved even by the most shocking finding, revelation, or video I can throw at them.
My students–whether rich or poor, urban or suburban, black or white–simply do not care whether drones increase or decrease the incidence of terrorist attacks, much less whether their use is in any sense morally justified. Whether drones kill innocents or kill “bad guys,” whether the targets are justified in resisting U.S. policy or obliged to lie down and take it: none of this is nearly as important as whatever they’re doing on their phones.
We’re killing kids in Yemen? The Trump Administration wants to conceal the number of civilian deaths taking place through drone strikes? “Signature strikes” axiomatically treat all “military aged males” between 15 and 70 within an ill-defined battle zone as candidates for targeted killing? The Israelis are bombing Gaza with our eager approval? Yawn. Scroll right. Go shopping. Text a friend.
Meanwhile, one or two of the remaining students are combat veterans so traumatized by their experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan that they request (and get) ADA 504 disability accommodations that permit them to skip the drone material altogether–on the grounds that the content of the material triggers combat-related PTSD. Felician prides itself on being a “military friendly school, a “stigma-free zone,” and an institution that goes out of its way to accommodate ADA 504 disability requests. It would in this context be considered both quixotic and offensive to ask whether combat-related PTSD is best handled through self-induced amnesia and thought suppression. It’s obvious enough that the wrong stimulus can trigger traumatic memories, and that trauma is correlated with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Solution? Suppress the stimulus. No need to take things further than that.
At some point, I imagine, the accommodations office (or someone else) may simply request that I stop teaching this material altogether. Why teach such upsetting material when there are so many less triggering topics out there? Do I have to fixate on topics like these? Does it make sense to teach a topic that has such adverse effects on already-vulnerable students? I usually spend between two and three weeks (five classes) on the Himes book. How long can I permit veterans to absent themselves from my class before I get accused of excluding them from three of fourteen weeks of class? How long before I get accused of wasting three weeks’ worth of veteran’s benefits, all in the name of some anti-American-sounding agenda?
Upshot: there’s no point in trying to cover material of this sort. Between apathy and disability, the demographic I teach is, in one way or another, impervious to rational inquiry into drone warfare and targeted killing. And if that demographic is in any way representative of the country, or even an important swatch of it, we get a snapshot of the state of public opinion on policies that produce mass death. The ignorant don’t care; the knowledgeable know too much to care. And the first group hugely outnumbers the second. If this isn’t a self-conscious public relations strategy on behalf of perpetual warfare, it should be.
Churchill is thought to have said that a fanatic is one who redoubles his efforts after forgetting his aims. There are days when, as an instructor, I often feel as though I fit that description. Resigned to this fact, there comes a time to hand up the shovel, throw in the towel, and give up. Plato’s Meno expresses skepticism that virtue can be taught. Twenty-five years in higher education have made me skeptical that the desire for knowledge, and the intellectual virtues associated with it, can be taught. On the bright side, it’s worth remembering that no one has ever stopped an imperialist juggernaut by running himself into the ground. The recognition of that fact is the beginning of a certain kind of wisdom. That the wisdom is allied to a certain kind of cynicism doesn’t make it any the less true.