Tom Spurgeon has been providing ongoing coverage of two important stories related to editorial cartooning: the protests over the cartoons of Mohammad that ran in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last year, and the letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff criticizing Tom Toles for drawing a cartoon that featured an amputated soldier. He's also linked to one representative article that compares the two stories, although his description (the piece "contrast[s] the discourse at work in each effort") is either too credulous or too genteel. (Assume the links here come from Tom, since all but one do.)
In that latter piece, Thomas Lifson at "The American Thinker" uncritically recycles arguments from the Joint Chiefs, who claim that Toles's cartoon is "a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation" and that Toles "make[s] light of their tremendous physical sacrifices." Lifson says the cartoon is "making light of an amputee recovering from battle wounds." (Don't try to follow his link if you want to judge for yourself, though; it points to the wrong cartoon! Try the Comics Reporter or Washington Post articles on the controversy instead.)
This interpretation is puzzling, to say the least. The cartoon certainly represents an amputated soldier, but it only mocks "Dr. Rumsfeld" for euphemistically minimizing the soldier's injuries by classifying him as "battle hardened." The comment is not Toles's invention, as he remarks in this CNN interview (scroll down):
Secretary Rumsfeld dismissed two serious reports about the damage that has been done to the U.S. Army and -- with the expression that it was battle-hardened. My feeling was that, in light of the damage that has been done to the Army, and the catastrophic suffering that has happened to a lot of American soldiers, that that expression did not appropriately cover the situation.
Toles also offers a short, straightforward rebuttal to claims that he was "making light" of injured soldiers:
a depiction of a situation, a reality, a set of facts, is not the same thing as making fun of them.
In fact, his cartoon criticizes Rumsfeld for callously making light of the soldiers by denigrating their casualties. So why isn't Thomas Lifson directing his ire at the Secretary of Defense? (I would ask why the Joint Chiefs aren't doing the same, but that question answers itself.)
Although it propagates this misinterpretation of Toles's cartoon, most of Lifson's article is about the often violent protests over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, leading with a contrast between the protests and the Joint Chiefs' letter. No doubt the letter is the more measured reaction, although comparing it to a series of orchestrated riots is faint praise indeed. Lifson seems especially touched that "the JCS and our military possess overwhelming physical force, yet nowhere demand anything," while Muslims worldwide protest and occasionally burn and riot. (The contrast seems a little more hollow now that our own State Department has supported the protesters' position.)
But the difference between the two situations is precisely one of overwhelming force. The Muslim protesters generally don't have any power in their countries and so they take to the streets; the Joint Chiefs have overwhelming power and write a letter that asks for voluntary silence from the press with the confidence of those who expect to be obeyed. (That doesn't make the former kind of protest better; it makes the latter kind more dangerous.) Besides, if the Joint Chiefs did bank on their overwhelming military power to demand the Post censor itself, that would make them exactly the kind of authoritarians the writers of "The American Thinker" decry elsewhere on their site (albeit without the prefix Islamo-). Granted, these days if the military did pull such a move they could depend on cheers from many corners of the internet and the American public.
Perhaps the most important point of comparison between the Danish cartoon protests and the Joint Chiefs letter is that they both operate on manufactured outrage. (I highly recommend Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? for more on how such forced outrage plays out domestically.) Whether it's the addition of three fabricated anti-Muslim cartoons to make the Jyllands-Posten pieces seem even more abusive or a disingenuous misinterpretation promoted as truth, both parties are magnifying their own offense to claim we can't criticize them. The difference is one of degree, and response, and power, not kind.
Update (2/8/06): Today, Tom reports on a very similar Mike Luckovitch cartoon featuring an amputated soldier... except this one makes fun of the media rather than Dr. Rummy. It hasn't garnered an angry letter from the Joint Chiefs. As cartoonist Nick Anderson says, "Perhaps it depends whose ox is being gored?"