Drawn Apart

The cartoon wars are upon us!

In September, a Danish newspaper published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, including "an image of the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse." The images were a violation of Islamic tradition, and the controversy, which has simmered since the cartoons surfaced, has now boiled over. The Associated Press brought word Monday that masked gunmen seized a European Union office in Gaza and demanded an apology from Denmark and Norway, where a newspaper ran the cartoons this month. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, and states throughout the Middle East and North Africa are now boycotting Danish products. The Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which originally published the drawings, long refused to apologize, but it finally did so this week. A day later: Bomb threats and chants of "War on Denmark, Death to Denmark" from protesters burning Danish flags in Gaza. It looks like the worst may be yet to come.

Closer to home, an editorial cartoon by Tom Toles in the Washington Post garnered the ire of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Howard Kurtz describes it, the cartoon "depicts a heavily bandaged soldier in a hospital bed as having lost his arms and legs, while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in the guise of a doctor, says: 'I'm listing your condition as "battle hardened."'"

The cartoon prompted this angry response from the Joint Chiefs, published in the Post and Washingtonian:

Using the likeness of a service member who has lost his arms and legs in war as the central theme of a cartoon was beyond tasteless. Editorial cartoons are often designed to exaggerate issues, and The Post is obviously free to address any topic, including the state of readiness of the armed forces. However, The Post and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to readers and to The Post's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who volunteered to defend this nation and, as a result, suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds.
They added: "As the joint chiefs, we rarely put our hand to one letter, but we cannot let this reprehensible cartoon go unanswered."

The cartoon, Kurtz reports, is based on remarks Rumsfeld recently made about the military being "battle hardened" in response to a Pentagon-sponsored study suggesting the Iraq war might be "breaking" the Army. Toles said he has no regrets, though he characterizes the letter as "an understandable response."

"I certainly never intended it to be in any way a personal attack on, or a derogatory comment on, the service or sacrifice of American soldiers," he told Kurtz, adding that the Joint Chiefs were "a little bit unfair in their reading of the cartoon."

Dave Autry, deputy communications director for Disabled American Veterans, said he was not offended by the cartoon. "It was graphic, no doubt about it. But it drove home a point, that there are critically ill patients that certainly need to be attended to."

You can see the original cartoon here. Do you think it crosses a line? And, if so, should the Post have refused to run it? News outlets often find themselves in the difficult position of trying not to alienate consumers while also maintaining a commitment to free speech. I think the fact that the Post printed the Joint Chiefs' response, instead of just offering up Toles' take, is central here. "In civilized societies, if you are offended by a cartoon, you do not burn flags, take up guns and raid buildings, chant death to your opponents, or threaten suicide bombings," writes Michelle Malkin, making reference to the Danish cartoon controversy. "You write a letter to the editor."