Drones in America: Jon Stewart Fails to Question Drone Expert On 'The Daily Show'


Wednesday, Jon Stewart welcomed Mary "Missy" Cummings, an MIT associate professor of aeronautics to the Daily Show to help promote a PBS documentary called Rise of the Drones.

Cummings appears as a technical expert in Rise of the Drones, and Stewart questioned her on drone technology, its commercial applications and their purpose. Unfortunately, the entire segment focused mainly on the non-combat and non-assassination use of drones, including theoretical commercial applications, rather than a discussion of the ethical quandaries posed by their use in warfare and targeted killings. Throughout the program, both host and guest vaguely joked about the dystopian nature of drone strikes and surveillance but failed to critique it as such.

Stewart let some curious answers slip through the cracks. When he did come close to asking about civilian deaths concerning drones, asking "is it easier to lose sight of its killing power, given the distance that you have from it?" Cummings responded:

"We have been backing up warfare for many, many years — from the high-altitude bombing to Tomahawk missiles, ballistic missiles — so flying drones is getting us further from the target, but that has been a long, existing trend."

No question from Stewart on whether that is a trend worth continuing, or whether the depersonalization of warfare is a problem, given the asymmetries of power involved and 2,600-3,400 deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan alone. Cummings went on to point out that drones make warfare easier and safer:

"Today, we have other people on the ground, and they're all talking to each other, they're all talking to the air traffic control plane in the sky, they're talking to people at the Pentagon for example. So we've got a lot more people talking to each other, in real time, and so I think drone warfare is actually a safer, more effective form of warfare."

Safer for who and in comparison to what? Certainly not for civilians, unless you're comparing the casualty figures to a full-scale ground invasion. In 2009, Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution claimed up to 10 civilians are killed for each high-level militant in Pakistan. That number has since fallen, but drone strikes still breed a strong hatred for America in much of Pakistan (it's also worth noting that the military commonly classifies any male of fighting age caught in a drone strike as a "militant").

The number of Pakistanis who oppose the drone program is twice as many as those who support it, and that's with only 56% of them knowing about it.

One only has to look at poll responses to know this program is not winning any hearts and minds overseas.

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It doesn't take a genius to realize the ease of drone use is specifically why their deployment is problematic: it allows greater or continued violations of human rights, while hiding them behind an anonymous and depersonalized platform. Because we can just fly drones over Pakistan, there's no risk to American lives and thus less political risk at home.

Cummings explained that the threat of drones to privacy was overstated, saying that the potential damages to privacy were "ultimately limited by the human inability to process all the information." She said the implication that drones could be used against Americans was "narcissistic" and said that the average American would not be engaged in activities the government would be interested in.

Sounds an awful lot like the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" argument advanced by the Bush Administration, right? Well, we recently found out what exactly the government thinks Americans need to be investigated for, and it's not just terrorism and criminal activity. It's anything subversive.

These are spurious responses to lowball questions, and it's kind of astounding – but mainly disappointing – that Stewart didn't challenge Cummings on them.

Stewart can be a tough and insightful interviewer, and doesn't shy away from calling people out. So why did Stewart refrain from asking the tough questions?

I don't know the answer to that. It may be a reminder to some of the more die-hard Daily Show fans that Stewart's trademark sarcasm and usual wit are not a replacement for real journalism, as he himself has admitted.

I do know, however, that his segment contributed to the normalization of drones and their continued intrusion into the lives of others overseas and, if we don't start asking hard questions, our own.