A famous British actor once observed that "dying is easy, comedy is hard."
A corollary might be that comedy can be especially hard when it comes from commanders-in-chief joking about the deaths they’re responsible for at times of war.
At the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night, President Obama noted that in the audience were the Jonas brothers.
"Sasha and Malia are huge fans," he said, "but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.”
The audience laughed approvingly but in the following days the joke has been met with a rising chorus of criticism — mainly from the Left.
After all, unmanned predator drone strikes have killed innocent civilians in Pakistan.
How many civilians? Unclear. Since the CIA's predator drone program is top secret, little is known about it.
But writing in Foreign Policy, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have estimated that their data shows that from 2008 until December 2009, drone strikes have killed between 384 and 578 individuals, with most of them militants but between 35 and 40 percent of them innocent civilians. Senior administration officials contend that the number of civilian casualties is far fewer than that.
As the New Yorker reported last year, "the embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the C.I.A. program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war."
So given all that, should President Obama have made a joke about this program?
"Let's be honest, fellow progressives," the Philadelphia Daily News' Will Bunch tweeted, "we'd be all over Bush if he made the same 'predator drone' joke Obama told last night."
President George W. Bush did, of course, make a joke about war at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner. In 2004, infamously, he joked about his inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, showing slides of himself searching for WMD under Oval Office furniture.
"It's inappropriate to the thousands of people obviously who have been wounded over there," Terry McAuliffe, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Good Morning America. "This is a very serious issue. We've lost hundreds of troops, as you know, over there. Let's not be laughing about not being able to find weapons of mass destruction. … We certainly should not be making light of the situation." Then-RNC chair Ed Gillespie responded that "the people in the room obviously saw the humor in it at that moment. And to play it back now in a different context is unfair, frankly, I have to say."
So far the criticism against President Obama seems to have been confined to the internet.
Wrote Salon's Alex Pareene: "It's funny because predator drone strikes in Pakistan have killed literally hundreds of completely innocent civilians, and now the president is evincing a casual disregard for those lives he is responsible for ending by making a lighthearted joke about killing famous young celebrities for the crime of attempting to sleep with his young daughters."
The American Prospect's Adam Serwer, noted that the "Obama administration has spent a great deal of time on outreach to Muslims worldwide, and on dialing down the volume and rhetoric of the prior administration in order to defuse al-Qaeda's narrative of a clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims. So you have to wonder why in the world the president's speech writers would think it was a good idea to throw a joke about predator drones into the president's speech during the White House Correspondent's Dinner, given that an estimated one-third of drone casualties, or between 289 and 378, have been civilians. It evinces a callous disregard for human life that is really inappropriate for a world leader, especially a president who is waging war against an enemy that deliberately targets civilians. It also helps undermine that outreach by making it look insincere."
Serwer assessed that the relative lack of outrage, compared to the response to Bush's joke, might have "to do with whose lives were the butt of the joke — we recognize the names and faces of the American service members who died because of Bush's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction as friends, relatives, and family members. The people who die in drone strikes are anonymous — they have no faces or names — except for the suspected terrorist targets the administration celebrates as being neutralized."
The Atlantic's Max Fisher has a round-up of some response HERE.
What do you think?