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Cartooning stupidity deep in the heart of Texas

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Joe Wos

Once again, cartoonists are on the front page instead of the funny page.

Monday last, gunmen opened fire on a “draw Muhammad cartoon contest” in Garland, Texas. In defense of the people involved in the contest, it’s clear the town of Garland and the American Freedom Defense Initiative were merely exercising their inalienable God-given right to stupidity.

I am going to say something you should never, ever say after an alleged terrorist attack: “They were asking for it.” Not only asking for it but, in my opinion, hoping for it.

The event was a shameless publicity grab that put innocent people in harm’s way. No professional, self-respecting cartoonist would be involved with a contest like this. (And, yes, I am aware that self-respecting and cartoonist is an oxymoron.)

Disclaimer: Acts of violent reprisal are wrong. But in our hearts, every now and then, we quietly say to ourselves, “Well, they had that coming.”

The contest organizers are like a teenage boy who sticks out his tongue and goes “nyah, nyah, nyah” to a lion in an open cage. He had it coming, right?

The event was an effort to incite a violent reaction that easily could have been avoided if the organizers had followed some very important rules of engagement put forth in 1972 by the late philosopher and singer-songwriter Jim Croce:

• You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.

• You don’t spit into the wind.

• You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger.

• And you don’t mess around with Muhammad.

I am paraphrasing that last one.

What’s the difference between this situation and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo was a magazine known for its social commentary and satire. The magazine featured real cartoonists who had a job to do. That job was not just to make fun of people but to do so with a purpose: to use illustration as commentary on society.

For the cartoonist, this is their job. This activity sometimes produces hate as a byproduct. Call it a trace amount of hate pollution from the cartoon factory.

A cartoonist has three values that guide him:

• To be an equal opportunity offender, taking on popes, prophets and presidents. No one is immune.

• To exercise free speech through illustration, commenting on society, politics and the issues of the day — not for the betterment of the world but for a greater understanding of said issues.

• And to get a paycheck for drawing funny pictures of people with big noses.

The organizers of the “Draw the Prophet” contest, on the other hand, were practicing hate for hate’s sake. The message didn’t lie in the drawings; it lay in the event itself. And that message was “We hates us some Muslims.”

The event was designed to incite a violent reaction. It wasn’t a sincere contest to show off drawing skills and humor. It was more akin to a Klan rally.

There is a frequently cited metaphor on the limits of free speech, put forth by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Freedom of speech doesn’t allow someone to falsely shout “fire!” in a crowded theater.

Members of the American Freedom Defense Initiative didn’t just yell “fire!” — they yelled “ready, aim, fire!” They took the first shot, then acted surprised when someone shot back with real bullets.

My greatest fear is that this foolish contest has lit a fuse. Cartoonists across the country might now have targets on their backs. The contest might ultimately help limit free speech, as cartoonists will think twice before drawing a cartoon of Muhammad, terrorists, extremist groups or violent criminals for fear of reprisal.

The end result? It’s open season on cartoonists.

Joe Wos, a cartoonist, writer and pop culture correspondent for WESA Essential Pittsburgh, lives in Penn Hills.

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