What’s wrong with torture-chamber cartoons?

They used to be funny. Now they aren’t. The cartoons haven’t changed. Our relationship to torture has.

The New Yorker’s cartoons have long featured dungeon scenes. I recall one in which an executioner turning the handle of the rack explains to a guard, “Right-tighty, lefty-loosey.” I thought that was pretty funny, simply as a juxtaposition of the quotidian with the outlandish. The latest, in the October 20 issue, shows the executioner telling the victim (again on the rack) “Don’t talk to me about suffering – in my spare time, I’m a writer.”

In my view humorists in general, and cartoonists in particular, deserve lots of slack. A joke can be morally objectionable because it takes a morally obnoxious viewpoint, which is my problem with prison-rape jokes. But since jokes are one way we deal with emotionally charged material, I rarely raise any objection to the topic of a joke, as opposed to its treatment of that topic.

But my reaction to the latest New Yorker torture-chamber cartoon was disgust rather than amusement. The joke is only so-so, but that’s true of lots of cartoons, so that can’t be the problem. And it doesn’t suggest (as prison-rape jokes often do) that the torture itself is amusing, or that the victim deserves it; the joke is about writing, not about the rack.

So what made me queasy? I think it was being reminded that people whose paychecks come out of my taxes and whose orders come from officials whose ultimate superiors I help choose are, or at least were until very recently, carrying out torture. Joking about rope in the home of a hanged man may be good gallows humor. But it’s just plain rude to joke about rope in the home of a hangman.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com