CSotD: 09/11/01 plus 20

On the 20th Anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, Steve Breen (Creators) demonstrates that less is more.

I’m surprised more cartoonists didn’t feel compelled to mark the day, but perhaps they realized how little they had to add to the conversation.

It was hardly a banner day for the art form then, and the proportion of so-what cartoons to inspiring pieces today is not significantly different.

That’s hardly surprising, since the goal is, essentially, a Pearly Gates cartoon for three thousand people, and obituary cartoons are rarely inspiring. Breen does well to avoid Sad Uncle Sam, and very well indeed to note Shanksville and the Pentagon, since most of the other memorial cartoons focus entirely on the World Trade Center.

Granted, that was the site of the largest death count, but, then again, if the passengers of United Flight 93 — which was headed for the Capitol — hadn’t stormed the cockpit and augured into that field in Pennsylvania, the day might have turned out very differently indeed. Numbers alone do not tell the story.

Breen offers a simple picture of mourning on a somber palette, well-crafted in its graphic detail, but conceptually minimalist.


Clay Bennett offered a similarly restrained, yet eloquent memorial cartoon at the time of the attacks.

For several years, I had been providing a presentation for high schools on political cartooning, and added Bennett’s piece as an example of what could be, in contrast to the maudlin flood of weeping Statues of Liberty that festooned newspapers on September 12.

I had stopped counting at 30, but there were more.

I showed the kids an example, but it would be unfair now to single anyone out here for having joined so many others in going the obvious, cheesy, sentimental route.

I suppose it’s also unfair to hold everyone to Bill Mauldin’s standards, but this should be remembered: He was at a press luncheon when word of Kennedy’s assassination triggered a stampede back to the newsrooms, and he produced his classic Mourning Lincoln in time for the Extra edition that afternoon.

It is, yes, a “weeper,” but the statue is a symbol of America, so his iteration shows a nation bereft, as well as both an assassinated president mourning another and a murdered man doing likewise.

The point being that tight deadlines are a limited excuse, and this was not a banner day for political cartooning.


More thoughtful work emerged in the week that followed, and I’m not sure precisely when this Peter Schrank piece was first published, since my source would have been a week’s-end collection, but it was virtually contemporaneous.

I also added it to my presentation, because, while “The Scream” has been overused since, it was, in 2001, both apt and familiar, while, coming from overseas, captured the universal sympathy with which the world responded to the attacks.

It is also graphically brilliant, morphing Edvard Munch’s bridge into the street of fleeing New Yorkers and the distorted face into a stylized globe.

Though it didn’t take long before I was reminding my young audience that Schrank had captured a moment which did not last.


It also didn’t take long for Stuart Carlson to recognize the Islamophobia that burst into flames almost immediately. This cartoon ran on September 18.


(Here’s a link to the full-sized, more readable PDF)

It hadn’t taken a genius to see it coming. In talking about Thomas Nast’s hatred of Irish Catholics during my presentation to juniors and seniors, I had long pointed out that Arabs were the only minority group that it was still acceptable to portray in bigoted ways, and, as the towers fell, I began work on this full-page adaptation of our weekly news feature for younger students, which then ran the Monday after the attacks.

As it happened, I needed to coordinate with Rinacat (Marina Tay), the artist who had created our normally cheerful little mascot, to produce a horrified version, the timeliness factor being exacerbated by the fact that she lives in Malaysia. (Appropriately, Rina is a non-Arabic, non-hijab-wearing Muslim.)

Note, also, the shout-out to Crisis Management Teams, formed in the wake of Columbine two years earlier. They had to deal with the 9/11 attacks in the first week of school, before teachers and students really knew each other. They did a masterful job.

You’ll also realize, however, that neither Carlson nor I were terribly successful in stemming our national tide of Islamophobia.


Several cartoonists, in marking the 20th anniversary, have cited the idea that Americans came together, and, certainly, we did, but today Steve Sack notes that, like the world’s sympathy, the moment passed quickly.

It should also be noted that, while it’s unlikely anyone who was alive then could forget the day, calls to “Remember” are usually calls to war, and, besides weeping Statues of Liberty, we saw a lot of vengeful Uncle Sams and angry Eagles, along with demands that we remember.

“Remember the Alamo” having been a call to enter the war with Mexico, “Remember the Maine” having been a call to enter the Spanish-American War, “Remember Pearl Harbor” having been a largely unnecessary call for recruits in World War II.

Which brings us to this

Juxtaposition of Liberty

(Pat Oliphant)

(Ann Telnaes)

As a Juxtaposition, this is a bit of a cheat, since Oliphant leapt upon the topic within a week of the attacks, while Telnaes’ piece came three years later, in response to the massive pile of precautions — concrete as well as legalistic — that had piled up as we entered our endless war.


This 2003 Luojie cartoon from China Daily having appeared in the run-up to that war, pointing out the dubious claims of WMDs as well as the even less credible attempts to connect Iraq to Al Qaeda.

It all puts a spin on calls to “Remember 9/11” that should give us pause.


Juxtaposition of the Funny Pages

(Doonesbury – 10/04/01)

(Boondocks –  09/27/01)

(Boondocks – 10/04/01)

Lead times held both Doonesbury and the Boondocks back from immediate commentary, but they soon caught up, and Boondocks found itself out of synch with the “Remember 9/11” motif of vengeful Sam and angry eagles. Some papers refused to run McGruder’s furious connections with our previous support of Osama bin Laden, though he had his history straight.


And Boopsie’s reluctance to watch Entertainment Tonight echoed the problem for late-night hosts who found it difficult to make topical humor in the wake of the attacks, a problem the Onion picked up on once the national mood began to recover.

We not only recovered, but managed to turn patriotism to profit, though Telnaes was not impressed with the “commemorations” that sprang up a year later.

Nor was I.

A few weeks before September 11, 2002, my boss, the circulation director, showed me a memo from Corporate, demanding to know our plans for duplicating our one-day news stand sales for September 12, 2001, the issue snapped up by readers desperate for coverage of the tragedy.

“Well,” I suggested, “we could rent a couple of planes …”

He laughed, but, yes, our newspaper dutifully produced a “Lest We Forget” special issue in order to help our stockholders cash in on the tragedy, a disgrace I remember each time I see “commemorative” issues about JFK or Princess Grace or anyone else on the racks at the grocery store checkout.

In case you thought publishers cared.

(When her bold accusation appeared, I emailed Telnaes — a freelancer at the time — and asked if anyone had picked it up. She responded that she didn’t really care.  She has now posted a collection of her 9/11 cartoons here, and it is very much worth the click.)


Finally, today, I wish I could agree with Christopher Weyant, because I would dearly love to be back where we were on September 10, 2001.

We surely, sadly, are not.

Granted, I’d like to crank the time machine back even a little more than that, and finish the recount that was halted by the Supreme Court, because I’d like to see how President Gore would have handled things.

But we can’t re-stabilize the Middle East and undo the worst aspects of the Patriot Act, and, besides, it’s not those specifics that have changed us so much in the past 20 years.

It’s the atmosphere in which we allowed them to happen.

William Saletan has a wonderfully furious piece in Slate that details the changes we’ve gone through, and where we’ve landed now:

We can’t change the past. The issue now is what we’re going to do about the future.

It is still a battle we can win with clipboards, comfortable shoes and knocking on doors.

Let our rallying cry be “Remember 9/10!”


One thought on “CSotD: 09/11/01 plus 20

  1. “… we can’t change the past”? I’m not so sure. Seems like many are working to “change” what actually happened on Jan. 6th. In some ways the entire effort to forbid discussion of racism is also such an effort.

    We can only learn from the past if we have a shared understanding of what actually happened. Many, I think, wish to obscure or deny, i.e “change,” the past.

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