Killing cartoons into submission

Posted: Mar 30, 2007 12:01 AM

With an unintentional irony that might even tickle the Prophet himself, a new book called "Killed Cartoons" killed a cartoon. Not because it was bad, but because it was just too good.

The book, edited by David Wallis and published by Norton, features political cartoons that other publications considered too hot to handle.

Except for one -- a drawing familiar to cartoon watchers, the omission of which merely reiterates the premise that made the book necessary.

Glaringly missing in a history of killed cartoons is one by Doug Marlette that sparked Muslim outrage a few years ago. I know it's shocking that Muslims were outraged, but try to stay focused.

The cartoon depicted a jihadi driving a Ryder truck with a nuclear bomb in back with the caption: What Would Muhammad Drive?

Wallis says he fought unsuccessfully for the cartoon's inclusion, but "I know why it didn't run and you know why it didn't run." He did note with admiration that Norton was the only publishing house of 15 he approached that had the "gumption'' to touch the book.

As the world knows by now, some Muslims have no tolerance for irreverence when it comes to their Prophet. When Marlette, now with the Tulsa World, drew the cartoon in 2002 for The Tallahassee Democrat, the paper pulled it from its Web site and kept it out of print editions after several thousand e-mails and death threats jammed its server.

The 2005 cartoon controversy that caused a worldwide outcry following publication of a dozen Muhammad images commissioned by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, further illustrated Islamist intolerance for Western principles of free speech.

In that instance, cartoonists went into hiding after receiving death threats. Last month, a Cambridge student also went into hiding after Muslims protested a Clare College magazine that spoofed religion, including Islam.

So far, American journalists and cartoonists have escaped the fate of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by a jihadist. But most American newspapers' refusal to publish the Danish cartoons -- to inform readers, not to inflame passions -- and Norton's decision to reject Marlette's cartoon speak to the effectiveness of intimidation.

Chris Lamb, College of Charleston (S.C.) communications professor and author of "Drawn To Extremes: The Use And Abuse Of Editorial Cartoons," likened the Marlette omission to "writing a history of the United States and leaving out the Civil War."

Editors and publishers, including Norton president Drake McFeely, typically explain their decision not to run certain cartoons with arguments about responsibility and sensitivity. McFeely said Norton's decision was based on sensitivity to the political environment: ``We blinked at that one, but we did not blink on the other 282 pages of cartoons.''

By definition, cartoons are insensitive, but the best ones are also meaningful -- not just gratuitously provocative. Irresponsibility, meanwhile, is in the eye of the beholder. Marlette points out that in the South ``good Christian people thought Martin Luther King was 'irresponsible.' The Soviets called Vaclav Havel's and Solzhenitzyn's writings 'irresponsible.'"

Provocation, in other words, is good. Cartoons are essentially nonviolent direct action. How would you prefer to air grievances: With detonator vests or doodles? Thought so.

Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize winner, isn't known for taking prisoners.

"I wonder how Norton authors like Sigmund Freud, whose books were burned by the Nazis, or feminist Adrienne Rich's burqa-averse poetry would fare with the Muslim censors and Norton's editorial appeasers," he said.

"Norton has no moral obligation to risk the lives of their employees to publish a cartoon, but they should acknowledge they killed the cartoon because they were frightened for their lives because of a drawing and didn't want their offices bombed."

Many doubtless would agree with Norton's decision, figuring that the possibility of mortal threat is a pretty good reason not to publish a controversial cartoon. But, in fact, it is the very reason to publish.

Not to be gratuitously in your face, but to be purposefully in your face. To make clear that free speech -- even drawn opinion -- not only trumps special interests, but also requires a bold and sometimes insensitive defense.

Instead, by capitulating to intimidation (even if we call it sensitivity), we embolden the forces that have no interest in freedom. We telegraph to Islamist totalitarians, whose ultimate goal is subjugation of the West, that death threats and riots will silence us into submission -- the literal meaning of "Islam."

In the country that helped midwife free speech into civilization, that may be the definition of irresponsible.