Osama jokes: The laughter of being alive

Cartoon by Mick Stevens © The New Yorker
Cartoon by Mick Stevens © The New Yorker

Over at the New Yorker blog, cartoon editor Bob Mankoff notes that Osama bin Laden had disappeared off their humour radar for a while, the 2007 cartoon above being his last appearance.

He takes a look at Bin Laden cartoons down the years and notes that in the age of terrorism – and this is no doubt acutely true in the city that suffered the worst al-Qaida attack – “the unspoken point was that laughter was part of being alive”. Read the article here.

Meanwhile, the PCO’s own Bill Stott looks here at how caricaturists can deflate the fear of tyrants and terrorists, even if their shadowy nature can make it difficult:

As “the world’s most wanted man”, Osama bin Laden had also been among the most caricatured. His very distinctive features were a gift to satirical artists, as was his dress code, alternating as it did between Arabic tradition and military camouflage.

I wonder if our doughty band of caricaturists has already perfected their versions of his successor. Who he? Well, he is an Egyptian academic, a surgeon no less, called Ayman al-Zawahiri.

He will now, in Western eyes at least, don the leader’s mantle. But al-Zawahiri, at first glance, does not have the strong facial characteristics of Bin Laden. He looks like a bespectacled 60-something scholar.

How things have changed. Despite leaps in communication technology, we don’t really know what al-Qaida’s movers and shakers look like. During the Second World War, our caricaturists had all the Nazi hierarchy off to a tee. From Hitler himself down through Goering, Himmler, Ribbentrop and Goebbels, caricaturists had a field day. Humour proved to be a very effective deflater.

The difference now is that al-Qaida supremos are mostly very secretive, and are visual mysteries. They don’t strut about the place like the Nazis did. So it’s harder for our caricaturists to diminish them through humour as effectively.

Fear of terrorism, of this facelessness, gives it the weapon of sinister mystery. And I’m not talking about religious differences here and the questionable decisions of Danish publishers, but wondering, just wondering, if the al-Qaida bogeyman couldn’t be cut down to size – just a little – by our excellent caricaturists.

Got any thoughts on the humour used to attack tyrants and terrorists? Comments welcome below, as ever.

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