Boston Bomber on Rolling Stone cover: Outrageous or courageous?

If anything, the cover reminds us that for all our sophistication and profiling tools, we, just like Tsarnaev’s baffled friends, still aren’t that good at knowing what a terrorist looks like.

Sandip Roy July 18, 2013 15:24:30 IST
Boston Bomber on Rolling Stone cover: Outrageous or courageous?

The song goes:

Well, we're big rock singers
We've got golden fingers
And we're loved everywhere we go (that sounds like us)
We sing about beauty and we sing about truth
For ten-thousand dollars a show (right)
We take all kinds of pills that give us all kind of thrills
But the thrill we've never known
Is the thrill that'll get ya when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rolling Stone

The 1 August cover of Rolling Stone seems to be more about chills than thrills. It has the smiling selfie of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And its set off howls of protest. Apparently the bomber (though described as a “monster” on the cover), is too good looking – all soulful eyes and artfully messed hair and chin scruff. And everyone was quick to judge the magazine by its cover.

Northeastern criminologist Jack Levin told MyFoxBoston.com the magazine was sending out a deadly message to youngsters: "If they want to become famous, kill somebody." Boston’s mayor told the magazine it “rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment.” Pharmacy chain CVS, “out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones” announced it won’t sell that issue of the magazine at all. Others like Walgreens and Stop & Shop chains have followed suit.

It’s an in-depth portrait of a golden boy’s mysterious transformation. The author Janet Reitman can be accused of making it seem as if the young man had little choice in the matter. In its dogged determination to find a reason, it blames everyone from the angry older brother to 9/11 conspiracy sites to the parents' divorce. Everyone but Dzhokhar himself.

But the protests have really been about the cover not the content.

So what are the main objections to putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the Rolling Stone?

Rolling Stone is an entertainment magazine. People think that because it’s the Rolling Stone, having Dzhokhar on the cover is tantamount to turning him into a rock star. The editor of ThinkProgress tweeted Rolling Stone was turning Tsarnaev “into Jim Morrison”. But Rolling Stone has done many stories on a whole range of issues including a cover story in 1970 with mass murderer Charles Manson. In its defence the magazine has said “The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.”

Boston Bomber on Rolling Stone cover Outrageous or courageous

The Rolling Stone cover with Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. Image via Associated Press

Dzhokhar is too good-looking. “Your use of a provocative, borderline sympathetic image and headline of someone who has caused so much pain to our country is appalling, insensitive, and disgusting,” wrote Katlyn Townsend, friend of bombing victim Jeffrey Bauman. The Guardian writes about his smoky eyes and tousled hair. “An almost sultry photo” writes the Boston Globe. The magazine has not said that it edited Tsarnaev to make him look more hip. Unlike Time Magazine which put OJ Simpson on its cover and photoshopped him into looking darker and more menacing. So it begs the question – what should a marathon bomber look like? Can a killer not be handsome? Or charming? Charles Sobhraj, hello!

The victims deserved to be on the cover, not the alleged bomber. "Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs, should be on cover," goes one response. But Bauman’s not the mystery here, Tsarnaev is. That’s what the article seeks to explore – why a friendly kid who seemed to have everything going for him imploded so spectacularly. Was the magazine trying to cash in on the adulation of teenage girls who made #freejahar (Jahar being his nickname) trend on Twitter soon after the verdict was announced? Perhaps. But as the New Yorker points out “The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too.”

But the real problem, honestly, is that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev isn’t Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris. After the Columbine school shootings Time Magazine put the shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris on the cover with the headline “The Monsters Next Door. What Made Them Do it?” The unraveling of Caucasian high school kids is apparently a solid journalistic endeavour while the unraveling of a kid from the actual Caucus is not cover-worthy even under a headline that says “Bomber.” One is a school shooter, good kid gone bad. The other is terrorist. Even worse, a Muslim one. As Firstpost editor Lakshmi Chaudhry tweets “given stories abt nice white boys who turn into killers, why not 1 that explains how Muslim boy became the same.”

“It's true that Charles Manson was on the cover in 1970, but at least in that case, he didn't look like a rock star,” writes Tanya Gharemani in Complex Pop Culture. The public’s revulsion at the cover is really about the fact that Charles Manson looked unpleasant, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev does not. This pot smoking, affable, chill skateboarder does not fit our stereotype of the “Islamic terrorist.” He looks too uncomfortably normal.

If anything, the cover reminds us that for all our sophistication and profiling tools, we, just like Tsarnaev’s baffled friends, still aren’t that good at knowing what a terrorist looks like.

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