It only takes a cartoon

In the aftermath of the massacre at the satiric French publication Charlie Hebdo and, subsequently, the attack at a kosher market, journalists from around the globe and Western government leaders have joined to condemn the actions by Islamic extremists.

But the ugly events have also sparked a debate about whether the French editorial staff’s work reflected freedom of expression or, as suggested by Michigan cartoonist Jacob Canfield, spreaders of “a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” By meaning to offend/shock, without regard for nuance or religious sensitivity, did Charlie overstep?

However you may interpret the publication’s intent, there can be no question that there is no justification for murder. The wonder is that a simple image reproduced for mass dissemination can stir so much hatred.

But it’s happened before – and not just in France.

Among the more noted cases is the assassination of Naji Salim al-Ali, a Palestinianborn cartoonist, who was shot in the head in London on July 22, 1987, and died some three weeks later. Critical of both Arab and Israeli leaders, Naji al-Ali spent some of his early years in refugee camps in Lebanon and created some 40,000 political cartoons.

Perhaps his most iconic was “Handala,” an image of a 10-year-old boy with his back to the viewer and his hands clapsed behind him, symbolizing the exile banished from his homeland. Later images depict a thin miserable man representing “the Palestinian as the defiant victim of Israeli oppression” and a fat man representing “the Arab regimes and Palestinian political leaders who led an easy life and engaged in political compromises,” as explained by Wikipedia.

It is suspected that Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, had advance knowledge of a plot, allegedly by Egypt, to kill the cartoonist but did nothing to prevent it.

New York Observer cartoonist R.J. Matson reminds us in a recent posting that, “In the 1970s, during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ [cartoonist] Hector Oesterheld enraged leaders of the military junta that ruled his country by depicting them as space aliens. He and his four daughters disappeared in 1976.”

New Zealander David Low, drawing cartoons for Britain’s Evening Standard during the 1930s, incurred Hitler’s wrath for his mocking images of Der Fuhrer leapfrogging over European ministers of “appeasement” and later criticized Churchill as well.

And, Matson notes, J. Edgar Hoover was so upset by a 1957 Mad magazine spoof of him that he sent two FBI agents to the magazine to warn the staff to cut it out. By the late ‘60s, however, Hoover had pitched the idea of creating cartoons to disrupt the left wing radicals.

But in the U.S. today, by and large, editorial cartoonists have gone the way of dinosaurs, points out L.A. Times cartoonist Ted Rall. They are regarded as a budget extravagance.

The reality, Rall says, is that, “Most … states have zero fulltime staff cartoonists. Many big states – California, New York, Texas, Illinois – have one. No American political magazine, on the left, center or right, has one. No American political website (Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Slate, Salon, etc.) employs a political cartoonist.”

And in those cases where such a creature does exist, they generally have to tread carefully, Rall and others say.

In the meantime, the craziness in the world continues unabated – as does the often senseless killing.

Sunday’s New York Times carried a story about an individual who had concealed an explosive while walking through a market in Maiduguri in northern Nigeria in a region known to be a Boko Haram hotbed.

The bomb detonated, killing its carrier – a 10-year-old girl – and 20 others, while injuring many more.

And so it goes.

– Ron Leir 

The Observer Staff