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.”
I 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.