Cartoons should provoke thought

02/17/2013 5:45 PM

05/16/2014 9:10 PM

A newspaper publishes an editorial cartoon that many readers take as a mockery of a figure they hold in the highest esteem. The reaction is furious and includes histrionic language, intimidation and many unambiguous death threats to the cartoonist and editors.

The September 2005 cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted the prophet Mohammed and spurred unrest around the globe? No — I’m describing reaction to a recent cartoon by The Kansas City Star’s Lee Judge, which ran in print on Feb. 9. It went viral online last Thursday night, and The Star received literally hundreds of angry reactions by early Friday morning.

The cartoon depicted a grave marked “American Sniper,” meaning Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who was killed along with a friend while on a shooting range. Charged is a 25-year-old Iraq War veteran who may have mental illness.

The caption on the cartoon read, “If only there had been a good guy with a gun around.” This is a direct reference to National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s recent statement, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Judge’s argument is that the killer was in the company of two indisputable “good guys” with guns, yet they were unable to stop an armed individual with the intent to kill, reportedly at point-blank range.

Before I go further, I need to address the completely unacceptable tenor of the majority of the early messages The Star received. Most of them were profane and many directly threatened violence to Judge or his editors. That type of vile conduct demeans the sincere and rational objections that sane and civil readers can rightly have to such a pointed piece of commentary.

Back to the cartoon. There’s no question that many people objecting to it misunderstood Judge’s point. Some thought it was implying that Kyle was one of LaPierre’s “bad guys” himself. And some people were unaware of LaPierre’s statement so they simply interpreted the grave and headstone as a stark reminder of Kyle’s violent death.

But many understood and just plain disagreed. The prevailing sentiment from many civil readers I spoke with was articulated well by Courtney Anderson: “Doing this so soon after the death of Chris Kyle is just insensitive. There’s a time and place for it.”

James Mariani wrote: “Just wanted to let you know, respectfully, that the cartoon was in poor taste. The deaths of military members should never be used as political folly, especially these days. We enlist to serve our nation and it is high time that using dead soldiers as a political tool or political ammunition comes to an end.”

The question of taste is of course inherently subjective, and it’s a constant point of debate. I reached out to cartoonist Glenn McCoy, whose work also tends to draw a lot of negative feedback from readers who disagree with his exaggerated caricatures and conservative points of view.

“It is the job of a cartoonist to be provocative, by forcefully, and sometimes viciously expressing our opinion,” he told me. “This often requires stretching the limits of taste. A good political cartoon is opinionated, non-objective and unfair. Sometimes, in order to effectively make my point, I must stretch the limits of taste.

“Like a running back I’m constantly charging at the scrimmage line of good taste. My editor’s job is to take me out at the knees.”

It’s perfectly reasonable to criticize The Star for running the cartoon on the grounds of taste. It’s also fair game to poke holes in Judge’s argument about whether the gunman could have been stopped.

But it’s the Opinion section’s job to provoke thought. Even make people angry.

The big shame is that civility was the victim here. Shooting your mouth off gives your opponents potent ammunition.

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