By Ian Crouch
The magazine cover retains its unique cultural power—to amuse, to inform, to agitate, or, as is the case with the forthcoming August 1st issue of Rolling Stone, to enrage. That cover, unveiled on Tuesday night, features a photographic self-portrait of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who last week pleaded not guilty to thirty charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction to kill, and could face the death penalty for his alleged role in the April attack. The image accompanies a reported piece by Janet Reitman, which, according to a blog post published by the magazine, includes dozens of interviews with people who knew Tsarnaev and is “a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.” The full article was posted on Wednesday afternoon, two days earlier than originally planned, but public opinion regarding it, and the issue in which it appears, was already fixed earlier in the day. On the magazine’s Facebook page, thousands of comments express some version of what appears to be a popular refrain: “Rolling Stone, fuck you!” The cover has been called “shameful,” “disgusting,” “tasteless,” and a “slap in the face to America.” Boston public officials have issued similar appraisals: Mayor Thomas Menino called it “a total disgrace.” CVS, Walgreens, and other local retailers have promised not to sell the issue.
But just because something sparks outrage doesn’t mean that it is outrageous. Menino, on Wednesday, added that the cover, or perhaps the story itself, “should have been about survivors or first responders.” There have been many moving and illuminating stories about the victims of the marathon attack, and the people who selflessly came to their aid, but this is not one of them. Instead, the Rolling Stone article is about the still largely mysterious backstory of a young man who transformed, in what appears to be a short amount of time, from a seemingly normal college student into an alleged terrorist. The facts of his life are important, the larger social implications of his biography are important—and so this story has the potential to be a valuable contribution to the public record and to the general understanding of one of the most serious incidents of domestic terrorism in American history. And so, in the plainest terms, Rolling Stone chose to promote an article about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—one that other news outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, had previously published. It does not appear that the magazine altered the image in any meaningful way. Nor does the photograph convey an editorial opinion about the subject; the accompanying cover text, meanwhile, identifies Tsarnaev as a “monster.” It shows him as he looked when he allegedly killed four people and injured hundreds more.
Many commenters on Facebook have complained that the image gives Tsarnaev the “rock star” treatment—that his scruffy facial hair; long, curly hair; T-shirt; and soft-eyed glance straight at the camera all make him look like just another Rolling Stone cover boy, whether Jim Morrison or any of the many longhairs who appeared in the magazine’s nineteen-seventies heyday. But these elements are not engineered. What is so troubling about this image, and many of the others that have become available since April, is that Tsarnaev really does look like a rock star. In this way, the photograph on Rolling Stone is of a part with the often unexpected, and unsettling, portrait of Tsarnaev that has emerged over the past few months.
The earliest image, made available by the F.B.I. while Tsarnaev was still the target of a massive manhunt, showed him near the bomb site in a backward white baseball cap. He looked young, and chillingly anonymous, just another dude in a hat, a kind of bro-bomber. Then others surfaced: of him as a baby-faced young man; a shot of him at his high-school graduation, in a black robe with a red carnation pinned near his left shoulder; others of him smirking, smiling; one in which he wears aviator shades—the kinds of digital snapshots that every young American projects into the world. What we didn’t see, and what perhaps we longed to see in our grief, or anger, or confusion, were any familiar images of the Islamic terrorist. The stories didn’t match the crime, either: the pot-smoking kid, the skateboarder, the student at the diverse Cambridge high school, the anonymous undergrad at the state college. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, fit our expectations much better. He looked older and angrier, and the accompanying biographical information was consistent with the appearance: he was alienated, radicalized, adrift, and dangerous. But the police killed Tamerlan during that frightening night in Watertown. He is dead, and Dzhokhar is alive.
This may be the most inconvenient fact about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: that he has survived to face trial, and so to keep facing the rest of us who live in Boston, and in the rest of the country. On Wednesday, defenders of Rolling Stone pointed out that the magazine doesn’t only put musicians and celebrities on its cover: in 1970, it ran a cover piece about Charles Manson. Looking at that image now, Manson himself resembles something of a rock star of his time. And it was true then, too: much of what made him so terrifying had to do with the ways in which he was inseparable from his greater zeitgeist. Manson was a murderer and a kind of twisted celebrity, and in that way a forerunner to the modern terrorist. The angry commenters on Facebook today can be forgiven for not wanting to look at Tsarnaev, or preferring instead to think of the victims and the heroes, and for worrying about the ways in which some have elevated Tsarnaev as a martyr and an object of obsession. The photo on the cover of Rolling Stone is the same one that “Dzhokhar Is Innocent” advocacy groups and #FreeDzhokhar Web groupies, mostly young women, use to honor their cause and crush. Everyone, in this age, understands the power of images, and the ways in which that power can lead to troubling ends—including, as Paul Bloom wrote in a recent post, misdirected empathy for an alleged mass killer.
Yet the vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to the Rolling Stone cover, before anyone had the chance to read the article itself, is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds. 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. And we need to hear them.
Photograph: Wenner Media/AP.