Rolling Stone magazine’s decision to put Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the 1 August 2013 cover has been met with resounding backlash and online outrage. Several US retailers have refused to sell the issue; political figures including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick have denounced the cover; and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin is just one of many celebrities who have proposed a complete boycott of the magazine. Social media especially has taken up this torch as only social media can (nothing rounds up the bandwagoneers quite like the combination of hot-button controversy and publicity). In its defense, Rolling Stone issued a statement Wednesday, citing the choice as part of a “long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day.” While I agree that the piece may have come a bit too soon for Boston area residents as well as victims of the bombing whose nerves and wounds are still raw from the attack which took place not quite three months ago, I believe the majority of the criticism is misplaced.
The focus began with the photo itself, that it made Tsarnaev look “glamourous”. This same photo has been used several times by different news agencies, including the New York Times, with no complaint or controversy. Despite claims to the contrary, the problem is not the photo but the publication using it. The charge that Rolling Stone ‘s use of the photo on its cover glamourizes Tsarnaev, that it makes him a figure to be idolized in the eyes of impressionable youth, is a weak point when you take the time to look at the magazine’s history. This is not simply a pop culture rag. Rolling Stone isn’t read by teenyboppers looking for dreamy cutouts for their bedroom wall or hints on how to pick up girls — Tiger Beat , it is not. Rolling Stone has been well-respected for covering harder news, politics in particular, over the years, counting such illustrious writers as Matt Taibbi, Michael Hastings, and Joe Klein among their frequent contributors. The reputation they have built over the years has attracted a more discerning clientele. The average reader of Rolling Stone, I would speculate, isn’t the type that would be as deeply influenced by a mere photo as many protesters claim. And I can’t help but wonder, of those who seem to be howling the loudest over this photo, how many have actually read the accompanying article. Because it’s Janet Reitman’s thoughtful and insightful writing that is the best defense of this cover.
Since the Holocaust revelations and what we know of its perpetrators and the society in which a banality of evil prospered we’ve encountered the reality that often the most heinous crimes come in the most prosaic countenances. Even a cursory look at some infamous murders of the Western world seem to prove this can often be the case. Ted Bundy, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, Fred and Rosemary West, Robledo Puch, Diane Downs, and the most recent addition to the list, Jodi Arias: average people, average jobs, average-looking. All guilty of horrific crimes, but all ordinary — the type of people you would have no hesitation sitting next to on the bus, working side-by-side with, or even inviting into your home. The illusion of evil as the snarling, hairy, wild-eyed monster is an easy trap to fall into, but history has shown us time and again the truth of the workaday villain.[blockquote size=”full” align=”right” byline=”— Rolling Stone Magazine, Online”]“Reitman spent the last two months interviewing dozens of sources – childhood and high school friends, teachers, neighbors and law enforcement agents, many of whom spoke for the first time about the case – to deliver a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.”[/blockquote]
The deepest and most profound darkness often comes in bright, shining packages. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a perfect example of this, and much more: he was a normal, good-looking, charming, thoroughly Americanized kid, confused and disillusioned as many young people are, and worshipful of his strong, assertive older brother, who took advantage of his sibling’s confusion and idolatry, twisting it into something sinister and using it to his own ends. Far from being a soft or sympathetic piece, Janet Reitman shows us the humanity behind the evil acts of this ordinary boy, the humanity mirrored in that cover photo, the type so prevalent among Facebook and Twitter avatars. That good-looking face, masking the menace within is more frightening than any fairy-tale monster. If we cannot face that simple truth, we are doomed to repeat this sad scenario. To deny the humanity of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is to deny the very lesson that can prevent future tragedy.