Jack Ohman

Rick Perry 'explosion' cartoon published to make a point

Several readers wrote me this morning expressing varying levels of concern about the cartoon depicting Gov. Rick Perry's marketing of Texas' loose regulations, juxtaposed with the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Their comments ranged from "you are a sick human being" to "insensitive and tasteless." I'm not sure I am clinically qualified to give myself a direct diagnosis, but I am pretty sure I am not a sick human being. Let's explore the question of tastelessness.

The Texas chemical plant had not been inspected by the state of Texas since 2006. That's seven years ago. You may have read in the news that Gov. Perry, during his business recruiting trips to California and Illinois, generally described his state as free from high taxes and burdensome regulation. One of the burdensome regulations he neglected to mention was the fact that his state hadn't really gotten around to checking out that fertilizer plant. Many Texas cities have little or no zoning, resulting in homes being permitted next to sparely inspected businesses that store explosive chemicals.

So when the plant exploded and killed 14 people, people started asking the inevitable questions about whether this tragedy could have been prevented.

Well, we're not going to know that now, exactly, but I doubt that more inspections and better zoning would have hurt.

Gov. Perry's name and the explosion have been linked for several news cycles. I didn't just make this all up. It's out there. There is a rather stunning report about all this on ProPublica, the investigative news website. I invite you to read it.

When I have to come up with these ideas, I can assure you that I am not really deliberately trying to be tasteless. I am not. What I am trying to do is make readers think about an issue in a striking way. I seem to have succeeded in this cartoon, one way or the other.

The question is whether it is tasteless or not.

My answer, respectfully, is that it isn't.

Having said that, what normal person doesn't mourn those poor people fighting the fire and living by the plant? I certainly do. What makes me angry, and, yes, I am driven by anger, is that it could have been prevented. I guess I could have done a toned-down version of the cartoon; I am not sure what that would have been, but I think many readers' objections just stemmed from the fact that I used the explosion as a metaphor, period. The wound is fresh, the hurt still stings.

The Texas governor's campaigning notwithstanding, should I have used the explosion as a vehicle to illustrate my point? I did. I stand by it. Here's why: Many readers said things along the lines of, "Would you have portrayed the severed limbs created by the Boston bomber to make a political point?" Hmm. No. I would not. But I have drawn a faceless Iraq war veteran, wrapped in bandages, wanting to know who had to invade Iraq to save face.

Yes, I got the same kind of reaction.


But you know something? I would draw that cartoon again. Wouldn't even think twice about it.

I also drew all the faces of the Newtown massacre children as the new face of the NRA.


Same thing. I would draw it again.

The cartoon we're discussing is rather sanitized, honestly. It shows an explosion. It plays off the word "Boom/booming." That's obviously the problem. Would I do it again? Don't know. I knew it was close to the edge, but I went with it, and I don't go with things I can't defend. I'm defending this one because I think that when you have a politician traveling across the country selling a state with low regulatory capacity, that politician also has to be accountable for what happens when that lack of regulation proves to be fatal.

That's exponentially more offensive to me. 

My job, as I understand it, is to be provocative. I provoke, you decide. I don't dictate, I put out my opinion along with everyone else. I sign my name. I own it. In my opinion, I could have gone further. Much further. 

Does this cartoon disrespect the victims? Their families?

Well, if someone, say a Texas regulator, had picked this up before 2013 but after 2006, maybe I wouldn't have had to draw that cartoon. No victims, no grieving families. So my rather pointed view of all this would be moot.

Gambling with the lives of innocent people is much more offensive to me.

That's way worse than tasteless.

It's reckless.