John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Barack Obama, Whitney Houston … and the Boston bomber? All of these people have landed the cover of Rolling Stone in their lifetimes as high-profile cultural figures. The legendary music magazine departed from their tradition of featuring generally well-respected, legitimate contributors to society when they made the controversial decision to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of their August issue. The public’s backlash, though understandable, is misplaced.
The pain and bloodshed carried out by Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan were motivated by evil intent, and to glorify the brothers is to glorify terrorists. What the article and its cover accomplished, however, was not to glorify them or elevate them as heroes. The article instead communicated the frightening pull of religious fundamentalism and political radicalism to normal kids such as Tsarnaev, a pull that should be understood if we are to understand the increasingly unpredictable nature of domestic terrorism.
When the cover featuring Tsarnaev came out, the public reacted angrily. How could a respected American magazine portray such a monster as a rock star? But such initial reactions did not recognize the story’s content and intent.
Victims of the bombings reacted with enraged statements, while retailers such as CVS and Walgreens pulled the issue from their shelves, according to the New Republic.
Boston Mayor Tom Menino wrote a letter to Rolling Stone in response to the cover, calling it “a disgrace” and decrying its decision to feature the bomber rather than the attack’s survivors: “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them.”
Of course, the misunderstanding and anger are entirely understandable. Tsarnaev and his brother murdered and maimed innocent people, which altered numerous lives and ended many others. The Tsarnaev brothers will never and should never be forgiven for their evil acts against our country.
That being said, journalist Janet Reitman wrote an extensively researched piece providing a look into the baffling persona of Dzhokhar, who by all appearances was just a normal American college kid who just happened to have Chechen roots. Reitman’s article is not an attempt to elicit a sympathetic response to Dzhokhar from the public, though she does describe a less than ideal family life and his disillusioned adolescent searching for identity.
At the beginning of the article, she states that Tsarnaev’s youth and background as an integrated member of American society necessitates an understanding of how he became a terrorist so willing to destroy the lives of innocent people: “The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young … 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.”
Matt Taibbi, a writer for the Rolling Stone and a Boston native, defended the article soon after it broke as a necessary and commendable example of responsible journalism and as a thoughtful look at the making of a homegrown terrorist.
The very innocence of the image itself, said Taibbi, speaks volumes about the completely unpredictable nature of Tsarnaev’s turn towards terrorism: “It’s Tsarnaev’s very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him. The story Janet wrote about the modern terrorist is that you can’t see him coming. He’s not walking down the street with a scary beard and a red X through his face. He looks just like any other kid.”
The article’s aim was not to humanize Tsarnaev for the sake of humanizing him, but to highlight the shadowy world of radicalism and the volatility of those that harbor radical tendencies. It acknowledges that not all terrorists are bearded men hiding out in Afghanistan’s mountainous caves with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, but that terrorists might also walk among us.
Whatever the reaction to the cover story and its image, the joke is ultimately on Tsarnaev. He is in federal custody facing the death penalty, or, if he’s lucky, life in a federal prison. We don’t have anything to lose from trying to understand Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his cruel motivations. but we do have a lot to gain from doing so. A better understanding of what happened can help us avoid such tragedies in the future, tragedies that would cause infinitely more pain than a poorly placed image on a magazine cover.
Sarah Cueva is a senior majoring in political science and middle east studies.
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