Special Report

A Tale of Two Cartoons

One thing is certain: the rioters on the Arab street consider themselves battle-hardened.

By 2.6.06

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Let me get this straight. Most Muslims are darling and gentle. Just a few baddies cast an ugly shadow over the mass of sweeties. Then an awful cartoon in Denmark gave the impression that they're all meanies. This grotesque image distorted the truth horribly. It showed the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb, implying that the religion itself promulgates violence. No wonder all the shy, retiring, unsung heroes of Islam were annoyed. So therefore they started rioting in the streets and burning Danish consulates. Is there anything wrong with this picture?

Well, yes, I suppose there is. The pious don't riot. Meditative types don't premeditate destruction. Then it must be the bad guys who are causing the upheaval. But if so, isn't the cartoon accurate? Aren't they a bunch of violent buffoons? Isn't the proof in the putting to flame of peace-loving embassies?

The media, ever the apologists for all non-American mayhem artists, are peddling an alibi: it seems that it is "against Islam" for any representation of Muhammad to be published. To which bit of wisdom I respond that -- forgive the cynicism -- they should tell it to the Marines. Do you mean to say that if the same newspapers published a portrait of Muhammad surrounded by a halo and feeding the starving masses, we would get the same uprising? Puhleez.

It occurs to me that Fate has delivered a trenchant message at a time when it was needed rather urgently. To flesh this out, we need to pause a moment to examine the "other" cartoon. On Thursday, February 3, on the very day that the Islamic hysteria began to roil, there was an American protest about a newspaper cartoon. In fact, when Senator McCain was asked by Bill Bennett that morning "Have you heard the uproar about the cartoon?" there was a moment of mix-up when the two men were discussing two different events.

Our homegrown story involved a cartoon published in the Washington Post. It depicted a soldier who had lost limbs in battle and featured a likeness of Donald Rumsfeld calling him "battle-hardened." The heads of the various military services were so offended that they sent a collective letter as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, something that rarely occurs (as they note in the note). When I saw this startling juxtaposition of two stories involving unseemly caricatures, I immediately thought: "There must be a message here." For three days on and off I pondered. Suddenly a light bulb went on over my head: how obvious! This was a stark tableau contrasting the two cultures.

Each society had faced a derisory portrayal of a treasured component of its ethos. The military and the Secretary of Defense occupy a lower rung in our hierarchy than religious beliefs, true, but they are the thin green line that separates us from anarchy. To ridicule them is to derogate something of true value. Yet even the unusually unanimous condemnation that branded this as beyond the pale of journalistic discourse... took the form of a strongly worded letter to the editor! The pen may be mightier than the sword, certainly when it's wielded by G. Gordon Liddy, but no one poked anyone's eye out. If anything, the protest modeled the sort of civility that it was demanding.

All of this follows the premise that the cartoons were not appropriate and argues that the response by rampaging Muslims is entirely abhorrent. The truth is that a further argument can be made to defend both pieces of editorial art. There is a reason why this form of artistic expression is known as caricature. Its medium is exaggeration. It works by taking ideas to their extremes. It is effective if it succeeds in tapping into a bit of truth that manages to hide beneath the placid surface of the routine picture. Takes an awful lot of distortion before anyone has right to take offense.

One of the sad byproducts of totalitarian governments is the silencing of true reportage. Newspapers and television networks had people in the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein's Iraq who were constrained by governmental censorship from delivering the truth to their readers and viewers. Much the same occurs even today in China and Cuba. What ends up happening is that they become de facto propagandists for those rulers by conveying the good news and scuttling the bad.

Now the same thing is happening via the Muslim riot. Western media will be intimidated into silence by the fear of mischief. Which is to say that Islamist thugs will achieve in communications what they achieve in politics, winning by terrorism what they cannot win by war. Those Danish publishers are on the front lines of the War on Terror just like our soldiers; they deserve our support. As for the Muslims' claim that they're really mostly nice guys, it's like that old lawyer joke: it's a shame that 90 percent of lawyers are giving the other 10 percent a bad name.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.