Yesterday, a man named Nigel Wrench, who is the BBC’s evening newsreader, said this, following a reporter’s item about the Pakistani Taliban’s habit of kidnapping children for deployment as suicide-bombers: “Children as lethal weapons. Humanity reaches a new low.”
Impossible to argue. That’s why we in the western world don’t think twice about assigning people the task of keeping us safe from those who would turn children into exploding devices and send them out into crowds, to be detonated.
What we could not have imagined, and never factored in, as part of this bargain, was Dick Cheney. And yet, here he is, insistently making his case that because our enemies are monstrous, it behooves us to engage them on their terms, matching tit for tat.
When I say that ”we” couldn’t imagine the Cheney chain of logic, I must exclude Chester Gould. The creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip, who late in his life became something of a rabid right-wing lunatic, sketched out an invented character, Diet Smith, who was an unapologetic weapons merchant and a special pal of police departments everywhere. Mr. Smith created a death-ray that instantly vaporized miscreants, and he demonstrated its effective use to his cop buddies. “Where’d the bad guys go?” Detective Tracy asked the arms salesman, who replied, “You’re breathing them.” The cartoonist, Mr. Gould, specialized in drawings of middle-aged white men with heads tilted back and teeth exposed, roaring with laughter, and here he employed just such a panel, framed with the credo, “Violence is golden… when it’s used to put down evil.”
I recall this comic strip appeared in the early 1970s. As a kid reading this stuff, it struck me as more than a little silly, kind of gross, and out of step with the times. Regardless, it was something out of the funny papers, and not to be taken seriously.
Flash forward 35 years, and you have a serious-looking fellow who looks like he was rendered in the stylized manner of artist Gould, drawn as a balding lard-tub with curled lip, connoting malevolence, and this cartoonish fellow is out there reviving the Diet Smith dialogs. Mr. Gould, who never failed to find a way to clamber over the top, would have insisted on making his fictive character, his own private take on Dick Cheney, into something more memorable than merely another sadistic nut. (That would be in keeping with his inventions of characters with eccentric personas such as ‘Half and Half,’ ‘Mumbles,’ and ‘Pruneface.’) So, continuing this string of uncanny depictions, Mr. Gould likely would have made his imaginary Mr. Cheney as ‘Chainy,’ a former high-ranking elected official, — say, a retired vice-president of the United States — turned invalid, who bitterly criss-crosses the planet in a personal rocket-propelled wheelchair, flailing out with a rusty motorcycle chain while mumbling his tough-guy philosophy. Mr. Gould might have been wrong about the rocket-chair, possibly, but, otherwise he’s mapped out this comic-strip Chainy right down to the 1930s-vintage baggy serge suiting. “Violence is golden… when it’s used to put down evil.”
Today’s paper contains the stunning claim that US soldiers raped suspected enemy combatants during interrogations. That’s the allegation, and as much as you don’t want to believe it, you wait for Dick Cheney to fly overhead in his rocket-chair and shriek, “So what? Look what they did during 9/11!” He, and the proponents of what they call “enhanced interrogation methods,” because people seem to get squeamish around words such as “torture,” will deny that rape occurred, and are bound to describe it instead as “assault with a friendly weapon,” appropriating Lee Marvin’s line from “Cat Ballou.”
However, even in the sometimes morally ambiguous world of Chester Gould (which, it occurs to me, really should be the name of a theme park, somewhere), it should be hard to put a virtuous spin on the practice of raping prisoners. The stark realities of current politics require us to take sides, and we’re with the side whose aim is to prevent occurrences such as innocent children being strapped to incendiary devices. That doesn’t mean we’d ever wish to hear some angry old jackass encouraging the institutionalized policy of abusing prisoners, either theirs or ours. That’s the kind of argument that was born of the comics page, and, for the well-being of our race, for the good of humankind, it really does need to stay there.