What if other countries mourned their national tragedies the way we do? The United States reads off the names of the dead during annual commemoration ceremonies and builds walls with names. Other countries have far bigger death counts, often due to us, but the scale of the carnage makes it impossible for them to wallow in such niceties.
This week’s ISIS-inspired truck attack in lower Manhattan by Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov has prompted discussions on a number of fronts. There is blowback, the foreign-policy-chickens-come-home-to-roost indicated by an increasing number of radical Islamists emerging from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian nation whose brutal dictatorship is financed and armed by our U.S. taxdollars.
There is the ongoing verbal diarrhea of our mentally diseased president, whose tweets that Saipov deserves the “DEATH PENALTY” (caps his) were overshadowed by his even more outlandish suggestion that the suspect be reclassified as an “enemy combatant” (a Bush-era phrase undefined by American law) and sent to the U.S. torture-concentration camp at Guantánamo. Always the opportunist, Trump also said the “diversity visa” program ought to be abolished because Saipov came to the U.S. under what is more commonly known as the visa lottery.
Seems to me that the biggest issue raised by the New York attack is the one we’re not talking about: the need to protect bicyclists from cars and trucks on public roadways.
Saipov drove his rented Home Depot truck down the West Side Highway onto what becomes West Street, the six-lane road that follows the Hudson River in Manhattan. At Houston Street, just south of Greenwich Village, he made a quick right and a quick left onto the joint pedestrian-bike path that runs alongside the highway. There he mowed down cyclists and pedestrians, killing eight people.
Those eight people aren’t dead solely due to Saipov. They were also killed by the City of New York and its lousy urban planning.
Though in recent years there has been considerable progress in terms of setting aside asphalt for bike paths, walkways and urban parklets in New York and many American other cities, city officials seem largely oblivious to the risks of placing soft human bodies in close proximity to speeding cars, SUVs and trucks.
New York, where I live, is one of numerous cities to report success with bike-rental programs. Ours is called Citibike; you rent a bike from a kiosk and return it to a docking station near your destination. In between you make your way down and across city streets, where cars and trucks rule.
I almost understand the city’s reluctance to dedicate a bike lane to, or to dedicate entire streets to, along smaller crosstown thoroughfares. They’re too narrow; you’d have to eliminate a lot of street parking, which would create more congestion. But the way New York has handled bike lanes along big boulevards is nothing short of inexplicable.
Nothing separates the bike lane from motor vehicle traffic but a line of white paint or, in some cases, short plastic sticks. Forget terrorism — hype aside, terrorism kills so few people that the only rational way for individuals to respond to it is to ignore it and live your life. It’s the ordinary accidents that worry me: two cars collide, one or both lose control and enter the bike path. It happens all the time in New York and elsewhere.
The West Street path where Saipov murdered his victims benefits from a short jersey barrier along the automobile section. But it’s easily accessible to even a large truck driven by a person of ill will, as we saw a few days ago — not to mention the random drunk who thinks it’s a service road. And it contains yet another ridiculous design flaw: putting pedestrians and bicyclists in the same space. Cyclists weave between walkers, terrifying them. Walkers are oblivious to cyclists, creating more accidents. Each deserve safe, discrete spaces to enjoy the outdoors.
What’s maddening about this is that this is the kind of tragedy that is predictable and easy to avoid with minimal expense. Bike paths running adjacent to traffic should be separated by solid concrete or metal barriers between intersections. At intersections, a series of metal bars wide enough to allow bikes to pass through but too narrow for cars, and solid enough to stop one traveling fast, should be installed.
The same precautions should be taken along densely-populated urban streets in order to protect pedestrians. In May 2017 a man high on PCP drove on a sidewalk in Times Square, killing a woman and leaving more than dozen others injured. But it would have been worse had his vehicle not been blocked by a bollard. Sturdy metal barriers should be installed along busy streets to protect pedestrians from out-of-control cars; at intersections they should go with those poles I mentioned above.
You can’t protect everyone. You can’t anticipate every nefarious plot. But disasters that are predictable, easy to avoid or mitigate, and relatively inexpensive are a no-brainer.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Breathess stories about Muslims fighting extremism by promoting moderation in their home countries have become so commonplace, and so cheesy, that they’re a clichÃ©. It’s especially bad since they look like sellouts merely by being praised by Americans! What if Americans went on Arab television channels for analogous, equal ridiculous, self-promotional opportunities?
Originally published by The Los Angeles Times:
An event like yesterday’s slaughter of at least 10 staff members, including four political cartoonists, and two policemen, at the office of Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, elicits so many responses that it’s hard to sort them out.
If you have a personal connection, that comes first.
I met a group of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, including one of the victims, a few years ago at the annual cartoon Festival in Angoulême, France, the biggest gathering of cartoonists and their fans in the world. They had sought me out, partly as fans of my work – for whatever reason, my stuff seems to travel well overseas – and because I was an American cartoonist who speaks French. We did what cartoonists do: we got drunk, complained about our editors, exchanged trade secrets including pay rates.
If I lived in France, that’s where I’d want to work.
My French counterparts struck me as more self-confident and cockier than the average cartoonist. Unlike at the older, venerable Le Canard Enchainée, cartoons are the centerpiece of Charlie Hebdo, not prose. The paper has suffered financial troubles over the years, yet somehow the French continued to keep it afloat because they love comics.
Here’s how much France values graphic satire:
- More full-time staff political cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than are employed at newspapers in the states of California, Texas and New York combined.
- More full-time staff cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than work at all American magazines and websites combined.
The Charlie Hebdo artists knew they were working at a place that not only allows them to push the envelope, but encourages it. Hell, they didn’t even tone things down after their office got bombed.
They weren’t paid much, but they were having fun. The last time that I met print journalists as punk rock as those guys, they were at the old Spy magazine.
They would definitely want that attitude to outlive them.
Next comes the “there but for the grace of God” reaction.
Every political cartoonist receives threats. After 9/11 especially, people promised to blow me up with a bomb, slit the throats of every member of my family, rape me, and deprive me of a livelihood by organizing sketchy boycott campaigns. (That last one almost worked.)
The most chilling came from a New York police officer, a sergeant, who was so careless and/or unconcerned about getting in trouble that his caller ID popped up.
Who was I going to call to complain? The cops?
As far as I know, no editorial cartoonist has been murdered in response to the content of his or her work in the United States, but there’s a first time for everything. Political cartoonists have been killed and brutally beaten in other countries. Here in the United States, the murder of an outspoken radio talkshow host reminds us that political murder isn’t something that only takes place somewhere else.
Every political cartoonist takes a risk to exercise freedom expression.
We know that our work, strident and opinionated, makes a lot of people very angry, and that we live in a country where a lot of people have a lot of guns. Whether you work in a newspaper office guarded by a minimum wage security guard or, as is increasingly the norm, in your own home, you are always one pull of a trigger away from death when you hit “send” to fire off your cartoon to your syndicate, blog or publication.
Which brings me to my big-picture reaction to yesterday’s horror:
Cartoons are incredibly powerful.
Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.
Scholars and analysts of the form have tried to articulate exactly what it is about comics that make them so effective at drawing an emotional response, but I think it’s the fact that such a deceptively simple art form can pack such a wallop. Particularly in the political cartoon format, nothing more than workaday artistic chops and a few snide sentences can be enough to cause a reader to question his long-held political beliefs, national loyalties, even his faith in God.
That drives some people nuts.
Think of the rage behind the gunmen who invaded Charlie Hebdo’s office yesterday, and that of the men who ordered them to do so. It’s too early to say for sure, but it’s a fair guess that they were radical Islamists. I’d like to ask them: how weak is your faith, how lame a Muslim must you be, to allow yourself to be reduced to the murder of innocents, over ink on paper colorized in Photoshop? In a sense, they were victims of cartoon derangement syndrome, the same affliction that led to the burning of embassies over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the repeated outrage over The New Yorker’s insipid yet controversial covers, and that NYPD sergeant in Brooklyn who called me after he read my cartoon criticizing the invasion of Iraq.
Political cartooning in the United States gets no respect. I was thinking about that this morning when I heard NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley call Charlie Hebdo “gross” and “in poor taste.” (I should certainly hope so! If it’s in good taste, it ain’t funny.) It was a hell of a thing to say, not to mention not true, while the bodies of dead journalists were still warm. But these were cartoonists, and therefore unworthy of the same level of decorum that a similar event at, say, The Onion – which mainly runs words – would merit.
But no matter. Political cartooning may not pay well, or often at all, and media elites can ignore it all they want. (Hey book critics: graphic novels exist!) But it matters.
Almost enough to die for.
President Obama is taking heat for agreeing to exchange Sgt. Bergdahl, an Afghanistan War POW held by the Taliban, for five high-ranking Talibs held as “detainees” at Guantanamo. Conservatives say he negotiated with terrorists (though the Taliban were the government of Afghanistan before being removed by a US invasion). More ridiculously, they worry that these five individuals might return to attack the U.S. – as if five people would make a difference in a war involving many thousands of fighters. I thought seeing this from the Afghan point of view would expose these lines of thinking for what they are.
Here is my cartoon this week for The Los Angeles Times:
The statewide legalization of marijuana in Colorado, for recreational as well as medicinal use, has prompted serious consideration of the drug’s health effects and socio-political ramifications. Well, that sure took awhile.
On the pro side, it’s been pretty much established that driving stoned isn’t nearly as dangerous as driving drunk. Since 7% of California motorists are cruising the state’s freeways with cannabis in their systems, that provides some comfort. (Sorry, no word on what percentage of the stoners are drunk as well.) Pot also has proven medical benefits; for example, parents of epileptic children are flocking to Colorado.
But the legalize hemp crowd’s timeless rant that pot is harmless is taking some hits.
A recent study claims to have documented the first two known cases of pot-related fatalities. Other studies find that beginning to smoke weed as a teenager — the most common age to start — can affect brain development, causing memory loss, permanently impaired judgment and even reduced IQ.
In musings that might surprise those who remember his “Moonbeam” period (but not those who have noticed there’s no squarer square than an old hippie), Gov. Jerry Brown took to Sunday morning TV to worry aloud that emulating Colorado could leave the state defenseless against (a) foreign business competition and (b) terrorism.
“How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?” Brown mused. “The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”
The governor didn’t say whether his garbled grammar was attributable to pot or the shortcomings of his secondary education.
I’m always interested in policy appeals motivated by fear. Politicians have unleashed an awful lot of threats — a few real but mostly imagined — during the last decade and a half. And they haven’t exactly made us a better, stronger or more economically successful nation. Brown’s thoughts are nowhere close to the depraved paranoia of Dick Cheney; the idea that California will be morally and economically weakened, its security undermined, because a tiny minority of the state’s residents regularly indulge in the evil weed seems about as serious and substantial as a puff of smoke.
Stay alert? What’s going to happen if we don’t, governor? Are Chinese sweatshop workers going to take a fiscal victory dance on the bones of our stoner-sapped competitiveness? Will our collected stonedness open up the one big chance radical Islamists have been waiting for?
Californians won’t have the chance to vote for legalized pot until November 2016 — if they’re not too wasted to remember.