Luckovich’s Cartoon on Torture: Over the Line?

Did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mike Luckovich “cross over the line” with his June 22 cartoon depicting a hooded American lecturing an al-Qaida figure on the etiquette of torture? (You can see the cartoon here). Some AJC readers called the cartoon anti-American, and (no surprise) FOX commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has been defending the U.S. military’s treatment of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, criticized it on his program “The O’Reilly Factor.”

I don’t think Luckovich’s cartoon crosses that hypothetical line of decency or good taste. Nor do I think it is unpatriotic. The cartoon’s implied comparison is a bit tough to swallow (moral equivalency arguments have always seemed strained to me, especially when the comparison involves particularly henious groups, like the Nazis or al-Qaida), but, discounting for artistic hyperbole, it remains well within the bounds of civil political discourse.

Luckovich’s message: when Americans rationalize or support torture their tactics begin to resemble al-Qaida’s—and that message deserves a hearing. The question of torture in an Age of Terror is not closed. The national debate over what constitutes torture continues, even after Sen. John McCain’s successful push for tighter legislative standards on those interrogation tactics used by the military and the CIA.

In considering Luckovich’s June 22nd cartoon, and other editorial cartoons, where does this hypothetical line of “acceptability” run? What are those bounds? Editorial cartoonists are bound to offend some readers whenever they touch upon controversial subjects and the heightened imagery of cartooning can infuriate (even more so than inflammatory words). The tools of cartooning—ridicule, sarcasm, exaggeration, caricature and the use of stereotypes and analogies—are, by their very nature, provocative and easily misunderstood.

To take one example, cartoonists Jeff Danziger, Ted Rall and Gary Trudeau have all faced accusations of racism for their depiction of Condoleeza Rice, largely because they mined long-standing racial stereotypes (house slaves, Prissy in “Gone with the Wind”) in their portrayals of the Secretary of State. Their defense, more or less, was that they were employing irony to attack Rice’s role as an excuse-maker for the Bush Administration.

Kevin Kallaugher (KAL) of the Baltimore Sun contributed a witty panel cartoon to the Washington Post entitled “I Walk the Line,” capturing the “besieged feeling” many cartoonists have today in this post 9/11 world, where the controversy over the Danish cartoons of Muhammed, and the death threats against their authors/artists, have highlighted the real dangers to those who practice this unique form of free expression.

Luckovich’s Cartoon

Some of the controversy surrounding the Luckovich cartoon is, no doubt, due to the events of the week in which it was published. The bodies of two American soliders—brutally tortured—were discovered in Iraq; the military is also confronting disturbing allegations of murder by U.S. troops; bad news continues to surface from Gitmo.

Public editor Angela Tuck of the Atlanta newspaper, who responds to reader complaints, offered her own criticism, focused more on the timing of the cartoon than on its content:

In a week that brought news of the brutal slayings of two young American soldiers at the hands of Iraqi insurgents and murder charges involving a handful of U.S. troops, the cartoon was ill-timed, as was its placement above the photographs of Pfcs. Thomas L. Tucker and Kristian Menchaca, whose badly mangled bodies were discovered this week in Iraq.

Tuck quoted Luckovich’s views on his cartoon ( “I believe our most powerful weapon is our moral authority,” he said. “Our level of conduct has to be beyond reproach. When U.S. government officials say it’s OK to use torture in some circumstances, it’s hard to say, ‘We’ll go this far and no farther.’ That’s when you have things like Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.”) and noted that the cartoonist now believed, “in hindsight… allowing some distance between the murders of Tucker and Menchaca and the cartoon’s publication would have been better.”

Tuck thought the cartoon’s message was somewhat ambiguous:

Depicting a U.S. figure wearing a hood like those worn by terrorists caused Luckovich’s intended message to be lost on some readers, myself included. When I first saw the cartoon, I wondered if he was equating the actions of U.S. troops with al-Qaida, which in my mind is a totally inappropriate comparison and one I can’t imagine him making.

I think Luckovich was making that comparison. Wasn’t he looking to jar readers out of their complacency, to make them think about the consquences of Americans using torture? That doesn’t strike me as “inappropriate,” even if the implied comparison is offensive. Torture is torture—the motives and nationality of the torturer are immaterial to the person being tortured. McCain and others have pointed out that rejecting any form of torture puts the U.S. on moral high ground and is consistent with national values. Luckovich’s cartoon highlights the issues involved.

The Iraq war and editorial cartoons

It’s not easy to lampoon or satirize during wartime without offending—and a divisive war, like the conflict in Iraq, produces strong emotional reactions to editorial commentary of any form. Iraq’s violence, and some of the disturbing images it has produced (beheadings and car bombings) make for grim cartoons. Some of the toughest anti-war cartoons have come from Jeff Danziger; he has been critical of the war from the start (and as a decorated Vietnam veteran, somewhat immune to having his patriotism questioned).

The Arizona Republic‘s Steve Benson angered some readers with his recent (June 7) cartoon about the alleged Haditha massacre, which featured dripping blood on the U.S. Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor symbol and suggested a cover-up was occuring.

In 2004, Ted Rall ignited a firestorm of criticism with his cartoon strip mocking Pat Tillman, the former pro football player who enlisted in the Army and was killed by friendly fire in April 2004. Rall’s strip (found here) implied that Tillman was an “idiot” for accepting Administration explanations for Iraq and Afghanistan and “a cog in a low-rent occupation army that shot more innocent civilians than terrorists to prop up puppet rulers and exploit gas and oil resources.” Rall later said he was wrong to have assumed Tillman was “a right-wing poster child” when reports surfaced that Tillman had regarded the invasion of Iraq as illegal. (I consider the Rall cartoon to be tasteless and to have “crossed over the line” of civility and decency; nonetheless, as a free expression advocate, I defend his right to publish it.)

In January 2006, Tom Toles’ cartoon of a wounded solider, an amputee, being attended to by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (portrayed as a doctor who says “I’m listing your condition as ‘battle hardened'”) brought a harsh response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They complained to the Washington Post that the cartoon was “beyond tasteless,” and “a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds.” Toles quickly responded that he meant “no offense toward American soldiers.”

Toles did, however, mean to highlight what many see as Rumsfeld’s somewhat cavalier attitude about the toll Afghanistan and Iraq had taken on the military, both active duty and reserves. At the time I thought Toles’ cartoon, while quite grim, had remained within bounds. (Interestingly enough, the Disabled Veterans of America agreed). Toles’ satirical arrows were aimed at the Defense Secretary, not wounded American soldiers.

Toles acknowledged that the figurative nature of cartoons, and their ambiguity, could lead to misunderstanding (and misrepresentation):

It is the nature of cartooning that someone can read an analogy a cartoon uses to mean things other than what was intended. The only way to avoid that problem is to draw cartoons that have no impact

You can argue that Toles unfairly employed the plight of military amputees to attack Rumsfeld, but that takes the cartoon too literally. The wounded soldier is the symbol of an American military that has been “strained to the breaking point.” The cartoon is powerful because of that metaphor, and because it raises the issue in a personal way.

And Toles has it right on another count: we all lose if cartoonists hesitate to draw tough cartoons or shy away from controversial topics because they fear misinterpretation, or having their motives, or patriotism questioned. Fortunately, those drawn to editorial cartooning and political satire tend to be independent, hard to bully and unlikely to back down. If you worry about the state of free expression today, that’s something to be thankful for.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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