Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
It’s been on my mind to draw some version of this cartoon for some time now--something that would vividly illustrate the hideous disproportion between how many people were killed on 9/11 and how many civilians have been killed in Iraq. I regret to tell you that the proportions depicted here are more or less accurate. Estimates of civilian casualties differ widely, with the 30,00 President Bush reluctantly owned up to being at the low end of the range. Last month the leftie rag The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper placing the number of violent deaths between March of 2003 and June of 2006 at 151,000. This would be roughly fifty times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Imagine: 911 times fifty. That’s … 45,550! (Sorry. A silly nod to the film Team America there.)
At first I had the idea of drawing this as a bar graph (ingeniously using the twin towers as the bars) except then, upon doing the calculations, I realized that this would be practically impossible unless the Baltimore City Paper were to agree to print a special issue in which my cartoon would be a kind of centerfold, accordioning out to a length of about twenty-five feet.
So then I decided to repeat the image of the twin towers as though they were a unit of measure, or the silhouettes stenciled on the sides of fighter planes to tally their kills. I thought I had finished the cartoon, and the disproportion was pretty grotesque and horrific, when I recounted and realized that, due to my remedial multiplications skills and perhaps a balking of the imagination in the face of the actual, unbelievably grim figures, I had only reproduced twenty-five World Trade Center images—half the actual number. I still had to double it.
In the print version, where I am constrained by an inflexible format, the “Them” side is a block of seven rows of six 9/11 icons, which works out to the lowball estimate of forty-eight. But it occurred to me that on the website, I could stretch the cartoon out vertically, approximating the original centerfold effect and increasing the visual impact. I had originally worried this cartoon would be lame and pedantic and visually lazy, but it unexpectedly turns out to be pretty powerful by virture of its sheer scale. Especially here online, where, because of the unique properties of web pages, you actively have to scroll down and down and farther down still to get to the end of all the World Trade Centers--sort of like the Imperial Stardestroyer sliding forever overhead into infinity at the beginning of Star Wars.
Jesus Christ we’ve killed a lot of people. I’m not even counting Afghanistan.
My childhood friend Michael and I used to play a little game called “Now We’re Even,” which involved punching, kicking, or otherwise physically assaulting each other and saying, “Now we’re even!” "No, now we're even!" et cetera, ad infinitum. This game had no conceivable end; it could only escalate. (Sometimes it broke out into the dreaded Grappling!, a kind of all-out spazzy tussle in which no one could hope to emerge victorious and the survivors envied the dead.) We considered it hilarious. It was this that suggested the title of the cartoon.
Perhaps it will sound naïve, or paranoid, if I suggest that a massive, organized national project of killing tens of thousands of people in another country might be undertaken for anything other than rational and well-intentioned reasons. I realize that it is a little reductionist of me to imply that we invaded Iraq solely out of revenge. All sorts of casus belli were run up the flagpole, most of them, in retrospect, obviously specious, and of course there were the ignoble reasons never mentioned, and, yes, there were even a few good ones (not that those were actually deciding factors). But it’s worth noting that soldiers en route to Iraq were shown grisly footage of 9/11 as part of their training, and a majority of them believed that their primary mission there was payback.
I won’t say that we killed 150,000 people in Iraq in direct reprisal for 9/11, but I will say I think it’s why we don’t mind having killed them so much. I believe this is the real, unconscious reason why we aren’t withholding our taxes or immolating ourselves in protest, why so many people who are otherwise at least passively decent, who spend a lot of money on their pets and hate to forget anyone on their Christmas card lists, can stomach the massacre of tens of thousands of innocents. After what happened on 9/11, a lot of people somewhere in the Arab world had to die. And it does make an ancient-world, Old-Testament kind of strategic sense: we’ve shown the world that any attack on the United States will be repaid fiftyfold, against some capriciously chosen country full of brown-skinned people. It's really not so different from punishing a traitor by executing his entire family, razing his hometown, and seeding the ground there with salt. Except that it's more like punishing him by executing some other guy's arbitrarily chosen family, razing his hometown, and seeding the ground over there wirth salt.
Of course it has to be said that quite a lot of these deaths were inflicted not by the U.S. and its allies but by the asshole fanatics of the terrorist militias and al Qaeda, setting off bombs in crowded markets and mosques. But then it must also be said that none of this would’ve happened if we hadn’t invaded.
I drew this cartoon this week for a couple of reasons. Lately the big flap about Iraq has been over how much it’s cost. In terms of money, that is. One new estimate, which includes private contracts, runs into the trillions. (That’s twelve zeros.) Apparently fiscal irresponsibility still stirs the American capacity for moral outrage.
Also, last week I made what was probably the professional mistake of weighing in on a message board for editorial cartoonists, trying to explain to these people--most of whom are nice enough old fuddy-duddys drawing the visual equivalent of family sitcoms or lite rock or golf jokes--why their work was so pitifully square and out of touch and irrelevant:
It seemed like, having said this, I pretty much had to take my own advice. Hence this rather humorless and didactic downer of a cartoon. But maybe we need a little buzzkill these days. The news lately has all been electoral handicapping and gossip: Hillary offers the number two spot to Obama! Owch! Eliot Spitzer got caught with a naked lady! Oooooooooooooh, he’s in troooou-blllle…. Meanwhile, another five soldiers killed in Baghdad, another sixteen civilians dead in a bus explosion near Basra.
Finally, in one of those free-associative tangents that you’ll sometimes find yourself following while clicking around on the internet, I recently looked up a thread on a comics message board about a “statement of conscience” my colleague Megan Kelso and I ran in the Comics Journal back in January of 2003, opposing the invasion of Iraq (modeled on a similar ad that science-fiction writers took out in one of the prominent sf magazines during Vietnam), to which hundreds of cartoonists appended their names. I never read any responses to it at the time it was published, but now there is a certain bitter savor in looking back at what the dorkwad cognoscenti had to say on the occasion.
One often sees political leaders’ lies replayed after they’ve been exposed and contradicted, but seldom do we get to reexamine some of the arguments, let’s charitably call them, advanced by our fellow Americans in times of national debate after the facts have come out and the consequences have followed. And we really should do this more often, because it is here that the real decision to go to war is made: not on the floor of the Senate or in the op-ed pages of newspapers or the studios of Sunday morning talk shows, but over dinner tables and in barrooms and on internet message boards. Often the participants in these discussions are unconsciously parroting the talking points of professional propagandists, but, then, this is what professional propagandists are paid for. People need sensible-sounding rationales for their bloodlust; you can’t win a water-cooler debate just by screaming, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” My old dance instructor used to tell us that “thoughts are the shadows of our feelings,” and I believe that all those cool, hardheaded arguments about WMD and UN resolutions and Saddam’s tyranny and menace to the rest of the world and the plight of the Kurds were just so much respectable cover for berserk animal hatred and fear.
So in the spirit of pure malicious hindsight I am exhuming some of the highlights of this colloquy here and putting them on grisly display. I won’t comment on any of them, as no rebuttal of mine could be more eloquently damning than the events of the last five years. I’m also not going to bother to correct grammar or spelling or even insert those aloofly devastating little [sic]s. (I realize that spelling is pretty arbitrary and incidental and yet it does seem like it might make a pretty reasonable prerequisite for entry into any debate on matters of national importance. It may be close-minded of me, but I’m not likely to be swayed in my position on an issue as serious as whether or not to go to war by the opinion of someone who can’t spell “masturbate.”) I will even, with some reluctance, leave unspoken my theories on the implications of the curious frequency with which the words “real men” and “balls” seem to come up in pro-war arguments.
Yes, well. That was five years ago. Those hundred and fifty thousand people were still alive then, the worth of their lives being casually debated by the likes of masterman and justapilgrim32 and nicholaswyche. It would be a coomfort to imagine, for the sake of the nation and my own peace of mind, that these people were all overweight fifteen-year-old virgins who read Ayn Rand and Wolverine comics and play a lot of World of Warcraft. But I fear they may have been my fellow taxpayers and voters. To pose a question I have asked to my conservative compatriots before: how’d that whole Iraq thing work out for you? Or have you already gotten bored and embarrassed by that whole thing and turned your attention elsewhere?
I'll leave the last word this week to Khalid al-Ansary, an Iraqi employee of the New York Times who lost a friend in a suicide bombing this week. In yesterday's Times he wrote: