That Rolling Stone cover with Dzokhar Tsarnaev on it.

People are upset. They’ve seen the latest cover of Rolling Stone, they’ve seen the improbably sexy shot of the Boston Bomber (if I recall, the image was originally a selfie that Tsarnaev himself instagrammed sometime before the attack), and they can’t understand how Rolling Stone would give a terrorist the rock star treatment, even as the American right wing is calling Trayvon Martin (a young man innocent of any wrongdoing, killed for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time) a thug.

But I honestly think — with great respect and taking enormous care to say all of the following informed by that respect — that Rolling Stone’s decision to run that picture was made in order to shake us up.

The copy on the cover, just below Tsarnaev’s cool-kid-scruffy chin, reads thus: “The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.”

Dzokhar TsarnaevI will admit that I was among those people who, in the days after the bombing, saw a wide variety of pictures of Tsarnaev, a teenager not that much older than my own son, and read his tweets, and presumed I knew something. Presumed him to be a lost boy, not a monster at heart. I was guessing he’d been physically abused by his violent, domineering brother and felt trapped and forced into doing something he wouldn’t have chosen for himself.

I now think something quite different, but it has been interesting (to put it kindly) to watch myself recover from having been duped by a sweet smile and a benign Twitter account. He looks like such a good kid, you know? And in that Rolling Stone cover, he looks like a rock star.

And that’s the thing: We don’t think that white kids who look like sexy young rock stars can be terrorists. We don’t think they can be monsters. We don’t think that they will go to a crowded, joyous public event and leave behind home-made bombs loaded with ball-bearings in order to maximize the mayhem and suffering. We don’t expect them to write notes calling their victims “collateral damage,” in retribution for American wars.

The American Muslim community has been roiled by the events in Boston, once again suffering the ignominious spotlight of fear-driven suspicion and hate. They know all too well what Americans think terrorists are “supposed” to look like, because nearly every time the American media uses the word, it comes with a picture of a bearded Muslim attached.

I am wrecked over the not-guilty verdict in Trayvon Martin’s case, but I know that I can’t truly grasp the depth of sorrow, despair, and anger that the African American community is experiencing this week. My son will never be called a thug when he wears his hoodie up, because my son is white.

But I honestly think that the editors of Rolling Stone were not aggrandizing Dzokhar Tsarnaev. I think they were challenging us: “This is your bomber, America. He’s a monster. Take a good look.”

Just as People magazine was challenging us when they ran their cover with Trayvon’s picture after he was murdered. They called it an American tragedy.

This is your child, America. Take a good look.

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17 Comments

  1. I think you are falling into the trap of thinking that people see the world the way that you see it. This little creep has a cult following that is convinced he is innocent. Should those people guide our public dialogue? Of course not. But images are powerful, and a lot of that power comes, not from how they challenge us, but how they reinforce what we already believe.

    • He has a cult following, that’s true, but then so do all kinds of mass murderers and rapists and various and sundry disgusting low-lifes. I don’t think we need to, or necessarily can, avoid giving aid and comfort to creepy cultists, and I do think that this image, when seen with the words immediately below it, actually challenge what we already believe. I think that was the intent – if American chooses to be challenged on any of its stereotypes in another question.

      (Also: Hi Craig!)

      • (Hi Emily!)

        Like I said, I think you’re overestimating the possibility of challenging people with an image like this. And if you’re not challenging people (and I don’t think you are), then all you’re left with is the image of a murderer as a rock star. I hate this cover. I think it gives Tsarnaev exactly what he wants, and I think it says to all those proto-Tsarnaevs out there, if you do what you’re thinking about doing, you will also get exactly what you want. You will be treated like you matter.

        This kid doesn’t matter. He is a wretched inkstain of a human being and I hope he is immediately forgotten forever.

        • If everyone has a knee-jerk reaction to this and is unable to overcome their revulsion, then yes, maybe not. But… it if gets enough people to think, consider the problem, learn from the history, maybe we can start avoiding these situations instead of reacting to them.

        • Area Woman Disagrees With Area Man. Again.

          And I furthermore disagree that he doesn’t matter, because he killed people, so he has made himself matter whether we want him to or not, and he will not be immediately forgotten forever, because he killed people.

        • Neocortex

           /  July 17, 2013

          Like Emily said, he matters, because he killed people, and hurt people, and traumatized people. I know some of them. One of my friends was working in the main hospital where they were taking the wounded. A bunch of my friends could hear the explosions and gunshots from their rooms the night he and his brother killed the MIT cop.

          He matters, and we should try to learn what we can about his descent into evil, the better to prevent it in others in the future.

  2. I posit this for everyone’s consideration: if the picture had been of the Boston bomber in handcuffs, being led into court, with exactly the same article, would anyone have cared?

    I had a brief encounter with someone on Twitter over this and the upshot was: Rolling Stone was doing it to sell magazines. Was Time doing the same when they put Hitler on their cover in 1933, or when they made him “Man of the Year” in 1938? Did anyone who put Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber), or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden on their cover do it to sell papers or magazines?

    Sure they did. But they also did it because those people were indicative of a moment in history. Look, I’m as angry as the next guy. It happened in a city I love, around the corner from where my favorite baseball team plays, and the year before, I had been there for both the Patriot’s Day Red Sox game and to the marathon. I probably would have been there this year if I hadn’t been last year. That scares me and angers me.

    Yet even I realize there is more to this than a couple of guys building some bombs and blowing up innocent people. For all the heinous horror they perpetrated, they were — and are — people. Nothing excuses this person’s actions, but there is a lot to be learned in exactly how he got to that point. We simply don’t want to acknowledge that he was anything other than a spawn of Hell, built that way from birth. We want to deny his humanity, to marginalize him, because it feeds our prejudices.

    He’ll get justice and with any luck, will spend his days rotting away in a cell, with the weight of his crimes on his mind. But we ignore him at our own peril, because under the right conditions, there’s someone in the wings waiting to replace him.

    • I also think it’s interesting that they denied him his name on the cover. His name allows most white Americans to distance themselves from him; his handsome face makes us uncomfortable (IMO).

      • No doubt. He looks too much like “one of us,” instead of the cartoon caricature versions of bombers we’ve been saturated with for the past 12 years.

  3. Interesting perspective, ELH. The narcissism of the “rock star” selfie plays into it as well.

  4. lamh35

     /  July 17, 2013

    ok, but what makes this kid different than the Columbine killers? They were white, they had regular, i.e. non-“Muslim” names, and yet at the time Rolling Stone had an article about it, but they did not use those guys as the cover? I suspect it is because the bomber kid had a “rocker-like” picture to show.

    To be honest, I don’t really care so much in that I don’t read Rolling Stone at all anymore (the last time was with an Adele cover and I just read it online, didn’t buy the issue)

  5. Neocortex

     /  July 17, 2013

    I am a Bostonian. I don’t understand what everyone’s damn problem is with this cover and article. It’s not a “glam” picture as USA Today called it, it’s just a picture of the guy. Magazines sometimes put bad people, like Hitler and Osama bin Laden on their covers. Rolling Stone, a magazine which has long had longform political articles in addition to music/entertainment fare, itself once put Charles Manson on the cover. There’s nothing particularly odd about putting the subject of your cover story on the cover.

    I read the actual article, apparently unlike most of the people complaining about it. I have a few minor bones to pick with it (use of “radical” as synonymous with violent, slightly weird portrayal of Cambridge in general), but none of them are that it glorifies terrorism. Because it doesn’t. It is very, very clear on the whole terrorism = bad thing. The cover was also pretty clear on that, in that it referred to Tsarnaev becoming “a monster”, which would suggest to me that they are saying that what he did was monstrous.

    Mayor Menino is being a twit. The story should have been about first responders? What, is media attention a reward for good behavior? How are perpetrators an unreasonable subject for analysis? Most of the survivors and emergency responders that I’ve interacted with don’t want a bunch of media scrutiny.

    I am embarrassed for Boston that so many people are in an uproar about it. We’re usually not this silly.

    • I do think that the argument can be made that they could have chosen a different, less rock-star-ish, less appealing image. Lord knows there are lots and lots of options out there. I think that his very attractiveness in this shot –a selfie, no less — is part of the power of the cover, that it in fact creates the jolt that I think they were going for. Even though I would disagree with them, though, I can see people saying: “Fine, he gets the cover, but why does he have to look so hot?” There was a choice made, and given that it’s Rolling Stone, a magazine very much concerned with the images portrayed in our popular culture, I’m pretty sure it was fully conscious.

      • Neocortex

         /  July 18, 2013

        I think this is failing to compute for me because I didn’t see the photo as hot or appealing – he looks kind of scruffy and sleazy in it.

        What you’re getting at is closer to what SEK at Lawyers Guns & Money is getting at, but most of the negative reaction that I’m seeing is of the sort thinking that putting him on the cover at ALL is terrible, either because we shouldn’t picture bad people or because being on the cover of Rolling Stone is intrinsically an honor (never mind that they’ve put obvious scumbags there before). Or even worse, Mayor Menino’s reaction that we shouldn’t even be writing about him because we should be writing about good people instead, or the reaction of some of the more obnoxious parts of the right wing that analyzing something is endorsing it.

  6. Darth Thulhu

     /  July 18, 2013

    Bundy was, by all reports, almost hypnotically charismatic.

    I’m all in favor of being made to stare at the real face of horror: seductive, pleasurable, “safe”, couldn’t care less if you live or die. Happy to violate, eager to kill, full of himself to a toxic degree, but darn if he doesn’t look like such an adorable little angel.

  7. Snoring Dog Studio

     /  July 18, 2013

    I don’t take issue with the cover. In fact, it is hypnotically frightening. He doesn’t LOOK like the kind of person with terrorism on his mind. And that’s the point.

  8. Would people feel more comfortable with Tsarny’s photo if there was a WANTED label in front of it, or a bulls-eye?
    We shouldn’t be uncomfortable about how a person looks. We should worry more about the character of that person and how that drove him to blow up a few bombs to kill and maim people.