Where are the editorial cartoonists who take the side of the NSA?

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  • Steve Kelley
Each week the Tribune scans the nation's editorial cartoons for the handful it republishes in its Cartoon Gallery on Sunday. Last Sunday's gallery consisted of five cartoons—by Dana Summers, Signe Wilkinson, Walt Handelsman, Steve Kelley, and Michael Ramirez—reacting to the revelation that the NSA is vacuuming up data whenever we talk on the telephone or browse the net. Some of the cartoons were drawn with a light hand and others weren't, but not a single cartoonist defended the NSA, even to the extent of allowing that President Obama had a point when he said June 20 in San Jose that "you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."

Why didn't the Tribune publish one or two cartoons in that vein? Editorial page editor Bruce Dold tells me there weren't any.

Yet the president made a pretty good point, and I bet a lot of these cartoonists don't disagree with it. So why didn't any of them say so? Let me propose an answer. A cartoon attacking Obama and the NSA for snooping on Americans practically draws itself. A cartoon defending the NSA surveillance as regrettable but necessary—how the hell do you draw that? A great editorial cartoon (not that any of the Tribune's was) is like a great epigram—it's easier to admire than trust. Like the gleaming Bean in Millennium Park, it's got seams but you can't see them.

And when you find every cartoonist in the land not only agreeing with each other but agreeing with you—which is what happened to me here—it's time to worry. You might be thinking a little too much with your gut.

I think we can all agree with Obama that perfect security and perfect privacy can't coexist, and I think we can further stipulate that even if we choose one over the other, perfection is impossible anyway. As an imperfect balance of opposing interests, NSA surveillance needs to be debated on both principled and practical grounds. And as I've written before, the Tribune has given an impressive roster of in-house defenders and critics space to make their best arguments (here are pieces I haven't linked to already, by Jack Fuller and Steve Chapman). It's a debate our president says the nation needs.

Said Obama in San Jose, "One of the things we are going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy. Because there are some tradeoffs involved. I welcome this debate. I think it's healthy for our democracy. I think it's a sign of maturity. Because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate."

With all due respect to the Tribune, I'd like to see a formal national debate—broadcast by CNN, perhaps—with Obama himself heading the government team and Senator Rand Paul among the opposition. That would be a great day for democracy! And I'm a little puzzled that Obama would both welcome a debate and want to prosecute the guy—Edward Snowden—who put it on the national agenda. As I try to figure out my own position in this debate, what I'm surest of is that it's a good thing the secret's out—some matters need to be aired, even if the public would rather go back to knowing nothing. I just wish my own convictions hadn't been undermined by that array of cartoons in the Tribune. They were five variations on the obvious.

I wondered if other cartoonists did better. My search wasn't exhaustive, but I came across a couple of cartoons by the Houston Chronicle's Nick Anderson (whom I know a little) that made points that are harder to pigeonhole. One showed a little sympathy for Edward Snowden as well as wariness of the massive powers of state. Another commented wryly on Obama's call for debate.

Then there was the cartoon in Monday's Tribune. It was drawn by Chan Lowe of the South Florida Sentinel. Maybe it can be argued that this one took the other side. At any rate it deals in no uncertain terms with Snowden the blabber. Lowe has his own website, and on it he shared the thinking that led him to his cartoon:

I suppose Edward Snowden should be congratulated, in a way, for creating a national furor by exposing widespread government surveillance activities of average citizens in the name of national security. If what Snowden sought by his actions was a national self-examination of how government by, of and for the people discharges its responsibility to protect the nation, then he succeeded.

An impressively subtle formulation of behavior and its consequences. How in the world would Lowe convey it in a few strokes of pen and ink?

He didn't try. In fact, he couldn't even sustain that level of thought at the keyboard. Lowe's essay quickly deteriorated. Snowden, he asserted, had "other avenues for accomplishing his goal" (he didn't say what they were) and should have taken them. "To some, he's a hero. To this American, he's just a self-aggrandizing publicity hound who was too lazy to do it the hard way."

Here's his cartoon.

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  • Chan Lowe

Snowden stabs liberty in the back and walks away telling himself, "I did it to save her." If I'd been furious with Snowden before I saw this exercise in simplistic irony, it would have made me think twice. Do I actually agree with this guy? I'd have thought. What am I missing?

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